Last charge for Gillard’s light brigade

The appointment of new faces to Julia Gillard's cabinet is unlikely to convince voters that much has changed in the Labor party. Instead, experience will be forged in the heat of electoral annihilation.

If Labor has a ground-zero from which to rebuild its fortunes for the 2013 election, surely it's today.

The latest Newspoll shows its primary support still held down at 30 per cent – its low point was 26 per cent in September 2011 – and with the Greens vote stuck at 10 per cent, it's facing a nation-changing electoral wipeout, with the two-party-preferred vote widening to 58 per cent to 42 to per cent in favour of the Coalition.

Abandon hope all ye cabinet ministers who enter here.

They won't, of course. George Megalogenis, probably Australia's most sober and data-driven commentator, observed last night on the ABC's Q&A that a major difference between politics and sport is that nobody talks about sporting contests in terms of the likely final score.

But following Labor's 'Ruddless coup', and the rather mis-shapen cabinet that emerged from yesterday's reshuffle, the likely final score will get plenty of attention.

There's something alarmingly lopsided about the new cabinet roles. Prime Minister Gillard has been forced to load up a few safe hands with key portfolios rather than risk giving them to newer faces.

Former Woodside executive Gary Gray can be relied on not to say the wrong thing in the resources portfolio, and while he's got a lot to learn in the small business portfolio, he'll likely keep his lips sealed until he does. And he'd better not drop any clangers – the electorally important SME community is no doubt feeling extremely bruised after being handballed in quick succession from Brendan O'Connor, to Chris Bowen, and on to Gray.

Other safe hands include rehabilitated coup participant Anthony Albanese, who is unlikely to drop the ball in Regional Development and Local Government; and the overburdened Craig Emerson who should avoid any faux pas in Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research.

A small mercy of the reshuffle is that with Emerson juggling the roles as Minister for Trade and Competiveness, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Asian Century Policy, and Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, he's unlikely to get a chance to sing again before the next election.

To the political classes, this reshuffle, particularly Emerson's unwieldy job title, will look absurd. However, it will be ignored by voters more generally.

There are some pluses – Gillard has increased female representation in the ministry, giving Jan McLucas human services, Catherine King regional affairs and Sharon Bird higher education and skills. The number of women in the inner and outer ministry is now 13, compared with nine in the shadow ministry.

Is that important? Well yes, but as University of Melbourne historian Marilyn Lake writes in the Fairfax papers today, you wouldn't read much about it: "20 men of different parties ... have served as Australian prime minister. Then Gillard dared to follow in their footsteps. Many fellow politicians and public commentators never forgave her audacity.

"Historians of the future will see more clearly perhaps than we can the pattern of relentless attacks on her that followed, both inside and outside parliament, including the astonishing press campaigns by male journalists calling on her to resign, male cartoonists vilifying her, and some male colleagues – yesterday's men – continually plotting to unseat her."

Lake knows a good deal more about that than your male correspondent. During the 'misogyny' debate last winter, female colleagues told me a number of times that male columnists had got the story quite wrong – that Gillard's attack on Tony Abbott, whatever one thinks of its 'fairness' or how justified it was in Abbott's own case, gave voice to a large number of women who had never seen that message as forcefully put before. Literally millions of women around the world celebrated Gillard's performance.

Lake is right that the media has been too quick to tell Australia's first female prime minister that she's playing the 'gender card' – that card has been unconsciously played the other way since the dawn of time.

So that's one plus in the new Gillard line-up and arguably, the new male faces refreshing the Old Man Labor brand will be another.

But that's about it. The overwhelming truth of this reshuffle is that it's a last-ditch attempt to salvage something from the three-year wrecking campaign waged by Kevin Rudd. It is most likely too late to undo the historic damage his lurking and challenging did to the party.

The new faces in the ministry will most likely be most useful in rebuilding Labor after the September election. If, that is, they retain their seats.

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