SYDNEY (REUTERS, AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday (Jan 18) resisted a major Cabinet reshuffle despite his waning poll numbers as he named Greg Hunt the new health minister to replace Sussan Ley, who resigned last week amid an expenses scandal.
He also appointed as the country's first indigenous minister Ken Wyatt, a former labourer who has credited education for his rise from humble beginnings in a country where Aborigines remain among the most disadvantaged.
Former health chief Ley resigned from her Cabinet position after it was revealed she claimed expenses for a visit to Australia's Gold Coast where she purchased an investment property.
Taxpayers were also charged A$13,000 (S$13,921) over the past two years to fly private planes, even though commercial flights were available, in order to keep up her flying hours and maintain her pilot's licence.
Hunt, who previously served as Australia's minister for industry and innovation, is Turnbull's first major Cabinet appointment since he assumed office just over a year ago.
But rather than using Ley's resignation as a trigger to refresh his frontbench, with recent polls showing the centre-right government trailing the Labor opposition, Turnbull opted for only a minor tweak.
"This is not a large reshuffle. We have a very strong team and it is one that is performing outstandingly for the Australian people," Turnbull told reporters in Sydney.
Turnbull's legislative agenda has been stymied by a fractious Senate, while he struggles to keep the support of the hard-right of his own party, which still simmers with resentment since he toppled the more conservative Tony Abbott as prime minister in a party-room coup in 2015.
Turnbull could have sought to win favour with his conservative wing by bringing Abbott back on to the frontbench, though analysts said Hunt is the better strategic choice.
"Turnbull has made a number of concessions to the right-wing and each time they have asked for more," said Peter Chen, professor of political science, University of Sydney.
Senator Arthur Sinodinos will replace Hunt as minister for industry and innovation.
The other major appointment is Ken Wyatt as Minister for Aged Care and for Indigenous Health.
Wyatt was the first Aboriginal person elected to Australia’s lower house in 2010 and had previously been assistant health minister.
“Just as Ken was the first indigenous person to be elected to the House of Representatives and the first to be appointed to the executive of the Commonwealth Government, he is now the first indigenous person appointed to the Commonwealth ministry,” Turnbull said on Wednesday.
“His extensive knowledge and experience as a senior public servant in indigenous health, coupled with his work as an assistant minister in this portfolio, makes him an ideal minister for this area.”
Aborigines – who make up about three of the national population of 24 million – suffer disproportionate levels of disease, imprisonment and social problems as well as significantly lower education, employment and life expectancy.
Western Australian Wyatt, a former teacher who worked in indigenous health and education, made a moving maiden speech upon entering parliament.
Wearing a traditional kangaroo cloak, he spoke of humble beginnings – from trapping rabbits as a child to his life as a labourer – saying education was a driver for his success.
A member of Australia’s conservative Liberal Party, Wyatt said indigenous people should be empowered to determine their own solutions, calling for greater representation for Aboriginals in parliament.