Australia's Deputy Leader to Drive Infrastructure Push in Government Shuffle

By Rob Taylor Features Dow Jones Newswires

CANBERRA, Australia--Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has tapped his deputy to drive a more than 70-billion-Australian-dollar (US$54 billion) infrastructure program in a refresh of his government ahead of a year that threatens more instability around his leadership.

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Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who has frequently railed against foreign investment, was appointed infrastructure minister on Tuesday in a change forced on Mr. Turnbull by a court ruling barring dual-nationality lawmakers.

"We have a lot of work to do," said Mr. Turnbull, whose conservatives have trailed opponents for more than a year in major opinion surveys. "We're committed to delivering for all Australians more and better-paying jobs, more prosperity and more security. That is our goal."

Mr. Joyce, who leads the junior Nationals party in Mr. Turnbull's Liberal-Nationals coalition, takes control of an infrastructure pipeline worth A$100 billion in public and private projects that the government hopes will boost resource and agricultural exports to major trade partners such as China, India and Japan, as well as revive its own fortunes.

The shuffle focused heavily on eastern Queensland state, where the government is threatened by right-wing and populist challengers.

Major projects under way include a A$5.3 billion second airport in Sydney and a proposed A$8.4 billion inland freight line stretching from Melbourne to Brisbane. But as with U.S. President Donald Trump's promise to spend up to US$1 trillion to rejuvenate aging U.S. transport infrastructure, Australia's plans require significant foreign investment and construction help.

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Mr. Turnbull's government has identified as a priority road and rail networks that have made Australia a booming building market, drawing foreign infrastructure giants to the country. Those include Bouygues SA (EN.FR) and Bechtel Group Inc. (BTL.XX) of France, Spain's ACS Group, Ferrovial SA (FRRVY) and Acciona (ANA.MC), and the U.S.'s General Electric Co. (GE), which makes trains.

Mr. Joyce was instrumental when Australia set up a register of foreign farm investment and has been critical of agriculture deals involving both U.S. and Chinese firms, some of which have been blocked. Earlier this year he called for a former conservative colleague to face questions over a port deal involving Chinese interests, saying, "I will always back in my nation."

Mr. Joyce will play a crucial role in what is expected to be a difficult year for Mr. Turnbull, who hopes to draw a line under 12 months in which his government has been roiled by leadership instability and Labor opponents have maintained an election-tipping 53%-47% lead.

Last week, the prime minister regained a one-seat parliamentary majority in a special election forced by the October court ruling on citizenship, but he faces the prospect of more by-elections over the coming months that, depending on their outcome, could deliver more opposition seats and even threaten early general elections.

Mr. Turnbull unveiled on Monday an improved midyear budget, tackling debt and giving him space to consider cuts in the personal income tax next year as he tries to move the political battle to the government's economic strengths.

In other changes to an expanded Cabinet, Christian Porter becomes Australia's attorney-general, replacing George Brandis as the country's top law officer.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton will lead a powerful new Home Affairs Ministry to improve counterterrorism, drawing immigration, border protection, law enforcement and domestic security agencies into a single U.K.-style agency.

Write to Rob Taylor at rob.taylor@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 19, 2017 00:02 ET (05:02 GMT)