Minister for Tertiary Education and Senate Leader Chris Evans and Attorney-General Roxon have announced their departures from Cabinet at a media conference in Canberra this morning, with Evans indicating he will be resigning from the Senate in coming months and the Attorney-General stating she will retire from politics at the next election. The Prime Minister immediately announced a detailed reshuffle to replace them, further confirming that this was a long-planned move.

Evans, nearly twenty years in the Senate, is understood to have resigned for personal reasons, the latest victim of the intensely-demanding Perth-Canberra commute that has worn down previous WA senators on both sides of the chamber. Evans, while personally well-regarded, struggled as minister first in Immigration, where he oversaw the dismantling the Pacific Solution and the removal of Temporary Protection Visas only to see asylum seeker boat arrivals start to rise during Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministership, and then in Workplace Relations, where he struggled to fight off an aggressive, confected campaign by employers to return to elements of WorkChoices. Eventually he was moved into the lower-profile but important portfolio of Tertiary Education.

The departure of Roxon is more surprising; she has been in Parliament since 1998 and, after a successful stint as Health Minister, became Attorney-General at the end of 2011. She has been dogged by civil rights issue, with widespread criticism of a slate of national security reforms put forward by her department, and an attempt to collate anti-discrimination laws into a single act that drew fire from a wide spectrum of critics concerned about freedom of speech.

Deputy Senate Leader and factional powerbroker Stephen Conroy is expected to succeed Evans despite a push for Penny Wong. The one clear benefit from Evans’ departure, assuming Conroy succeeds him, is that the pugnacious Broadband Minister will be far more aggressive in the Senate than Evans. A persistent feature of Labor’s period in office has been an absence of the kind of remorseless political aggression demonstrated by Tony Abbott once he became Opposition Leader. Stephen Conroy would bring that to his leadership of the Senate.

The departures (Evans’s leaked last night), inevitably, have been portrayed in the media as evidence of “disarray” in what is supposed to be the Prime Minister’s epically long election campaign. It should more accurately be seen as a clearing of the ministerial decks at the start of an election year.

Ministerial changes

Chris Bowen is the big winner from the reshuffle, being shifted from the immensely difficult Immigration portfolio to Evans’s Tertiary Education portfolio, with strong Gillard supporter Brendan O’Connor replacing him at Immigration. Labor QC Mark Dreyfus will replace Roxon in the Attorney-General, an elevation that takes him straight into Cabinet. There are a number of other promotions as well, one consequent to the return to the backbench of Justine Elliot, whom the Prime Minister had said had grown uncomfortable as Parliamentary Secretary for Trade while she was leading a campaign against coal seam gas.

Bowen will be delighted to escape Immigration, where he has had to deal with a massive increase in boat arrivals and the reinstatement of the Pacific Solution, but where he also achieved the historic reform of a massive increase in Australia’s humanitarian intake, to 20,000.

The PM’s media release outlining the full array of changes follows:


Today I pay tribute to Senator Chris Evans and Attorney General Nicola Roxon who will step down from the Cabinet immediately.

I thank them both for their tireless efforts in Government since 2007 and in Opposition. They have worked in critical portfolios and leave a proud legacy of Labor reforms which have helped create a stronger, fairer modern Australia.

Their departure leaves big shoes to fill. But it paves the way for fresh talent, new ideas and new energy during the days of governing in 2013. It means a rejuvenated team who will keep building a smarter, fairer modern Australia.

Senator Evans has led Labor in the Senate since 2004 and acted as Prime Minister on several occasions. He has served as Minister in the demanding portfolios of Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, Immigration and Citizenship and Workplace Relations.

He implemented substantial changes that transformed the nation’s tertiary education system. An additional 190,000 students are now studying at university – many of them the first in their families to do so.

Elected to the Senate in 1993, Senator Evans established the National Workforce Development Fund, the first employer-led training partnership that ensures we are training Australians for jobs not just for the sake of training.

As Immigration Minister, Senator Evans shaped the temporary and permanent skilled migration system to serve our economy and restored integrity to the 457 visa program. He abolished Temporary Protection Visas and detention debt and introduced Labor’s detention values for the treatment of asylum seekers.

Ms Roxon was elected as the Member for Gellibrand in 1998.

As Australia’s first female Attorney General, she will be remembered for her passion for law reform. I will always be grateful for her help in establishing the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

She has fearlessly taken on big tobacco and driven Australia’s world-leading plain packaging laws, winning international recognition.

As Minister for Emergency Management, she has been at the helm of the nation’s response to natural disasters on many occasions.

As Health Minister, Ms Roxon oversaw major reforms to Australia’s public hospital, primary care and preventative health systems.

I know they will continue to work hard for their constituents in Western Australia and in the electorate of Gellibrand and wish them and their families the best for the future.

Chris Bowen will replace Senator Evans as Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research. He will also have responsibility for Small Business.

Mark Dreyfus will replace Ms Roxon as Attorney General and Minister for Emergency Management, relinquishing the role of Cabinet Secretary to Jason Clare, who retains Home Affairs and Justice.

Brendan O’Connor will become Minister for Immigration and Citizenship whilst Mark Butler takes on Housing and Homelessness.

 Mike Kelly enters the Ministry as Minister for Defence Materiel.

I also welcome new Parliamentary Secretaries Yvette D’Ath (Climate Change and Energy Efficiency), Kelvin Thompson (Trade) and Melissa Parke (Mental Health, Homelessness and Social Housing) and thank Justine Elliot for her contribution in the Trade portfolio. 

I will recommend to Her Excellency the Governor-General that new members of the Ministry be sworn in on Monday 4 February 2013.

A ballot for the Senate leadership position will be held at Monday’s caucus meeting.

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