SYDNEY, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday 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.
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 ($9,816) 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.
$1 = 1.3243 Australian dollars Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Michael Perry