Kevin Rudd’s government has been tarred by its first ministerial scandal, ending in the resignation of Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon barely 18 months into its first term.
Gaffe-prone Mr Fitzgibbon was forced to quit after it was revealed his office had aided his brother Mark, the chief executive of a private health insurance fund NIB, in efforts to lobby Defence over health contracting.
Mr Rudd told reporters after accepting the resignation that Mr Fitzgibbon had been a “first class” minister but had paid the highest price for breaching the ministerial code of conduct.
The Prime Minister had chastised Mr Fitzgibbon for the “minor breach” of failing to declare a night’s accommodation provided by his brother’s company, NIB.
It was the last of a string of incidents where he failed to declare gifts.
But, Mr Rudd said, the latest incidents revealed in a senate estimates committee were a different story.
“The minister has accepted responsibility for these mistakes, they are mistakes. They are mistakes in relation to accountability,” the Prime Minister said.
There have been a number of them,” Mr Rudd told reporters.
“This one does represent a significant departure from the undertakings the minister gave publicly in March on this particular matter.”
A new defence minister is expected be named in the next few days amid speculation the candidates include parliamentary secretary for climate change Greg Combet, Immigration Minister Chris Evans, and Special Minister of State John Faulkner.
Mr Rudd indicated he was not planning a wider reshuffle of his ministry, saying he was not in favour of change for the sake of it.
Opposition called for Fitzgibbon resignation
The opposition has been pursuing Mr Fitzgibbon for months calling for his resignation over his failure earlier this year to fix a pay bungle affecting special forces soldiers and for failing to declare two trips to China which were gifts of Fitzgibbon family friend, Chinese business-woman Helen Liu.
This week, Mr Fitzgibbon was forced to admit that he had failed to declare a gift of a night’s accommodation, valued at $450, from NIB.
Opposition deputy leader Julie Bishop said it was clear the resignation had been forced to prevent any further revelations.
Ms Bishop told AAP the opposition had a pile of questions yet to be asked querying what had become a “pattern of behaviour” by Mr Fitzgibbon.
But Mr Fitzgibbon hit back, saying he’d been undermined from within Defence and possibly from within his own office.
“It has been obvious over the course of the last few months at least, that I have at least two or three Judas’ in my midst and they had the drip on me,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.
“Sadly, I’m not able to rule out my own ministerial office.”
Questions by opposition defence spokesman David Johnston in a senate estimates committee revealed Army Major-General Paul Alexander, who is in charge of defence health services, had been instructed to attend meetings with Mark Fitzgibbon on July 3 and August 27, 2008.
The minister met with Senator Faulkner and Mr Rudd’s chief of staff, Alistair Jordan, and then handed his written resignation to Mr Rudd in the Prime Minister’s office.
In his letter, Mr Fitzgibbon said examination of the transcript of the senate committee the night before, left him unsatisfied that he had fully conformed with the government’s ministerial code of conduct.
“In particular, I have learned that one meeting between the parties was held in my ministerial office,” he wrote.
“Further, I understand that members of my staff sat in on a number of meetings.”
Buoyed by their first ministerial scalp, the opposition pursued Mr Rudd in question time over the provision of a free car to his electorate office in Brisbane.