Remember what a hub-hub there was over Joel Fitzgibbon. First, without any help from Defence Department bureaucracy, he managed to foul up the Department’s pay system, targeting specifically SAS personnel on active duty, arranging for them to receive pay slips that indicated they were to receive no pay, leaving them distraught that their families back home faced destitution. If only he had had the sense to ask the bureaucrats to fix this, it would have been done in an instant. The Shadow Minister said he could have fixed the problem in four hours.
Sensing that a ministerial scalp was in the offing the Coalition went ballistic, demanding an explanation, and when Fitzgibbon made a fumbling response at Question Time they smelt blood and went in for the kill, like hunting a vulnerable wildebeest as Dennis Shanahan put it. Fitzgibbon looked stunned, but survived. [more]
Not to be denied, the attacks went on and on in Question Time, further mauling but not finishing off the weakened wildebeest, who wandered off to lick his wounds. It was a welcome distraction for the Coalition from the GFC, ETS and other minor matters. After all, the scalp was the prize.
Then out of left field, courtesy of three high-level Fairfax investigative journalists Richard Baker, Philip Dorling and Nick McKenzie a startling story emerged: Defence spies on its minister, “Officials in the Defence Department have conducted a covert investigation into their own minister, leaking personal information about Joel Fitzgibbon's relationship with a wealthy Chinese-born woman with past financial ties to Beijing. Mr Fitzgibbon's 16-year friendship with Sydney-based businesswoman Helen Liu has recently been raised by officials within the Defence Department's intelligence and security areas as a possible security risk.” No evidence for these allegations was offered; we were expected to accept them as given truth. After all Fairfax said so. That started the pack running again, more smell of blood, more chance of a kill. Unfortunately for the Coalition the House was not sitting and so a direct attack on Fitzgibbon was denied.
But the media pack made good this deficit by asking Kevin Rudd about it in Washington – clearly this was more important and certainly more juicy that Rudd’s business there. Rudd chastised Fitzgibbon and said he would expect more of him in future. Then the pack back home hammered Fitzgibbon about his connection with Helen Liu at a doorstop, which he handled ineptly, leading to accusations of a cover-up of Liu-sponsored trips. He made good his ‘misspeaking’, but that was not enough to placate the media. So the story ran on and on with the same journalists dredging up spurious material about Ms Liu’s ‘association’ with, or ‘closeness’ to members of China’s military via some magazine published in Ms Liu’s home province. No matter how trivial the ‘facts’, no matter how insubstantial the information, the effect of this penetrating analysis was public smearing of Ms Liu, and of course Fitzgibbon with her. The saga went on and on, the Fairfax press squeezing as much juice from this initially tasty looking, but eventually sour lemon. Not surprisingly China xenophobia was sparked, and several weighty pieces emerged from serious journalists analysing the ins and outs of this complex matter – how close to China can Australia afford to be?
Meanwhile the notion surfaced that since Defence Department persons had ‘spied’ on Fitzgibbon, even broke into his computer, he must have lost their confidence and therefore was no longer suitable to be the minister. The Coalition insisted that a minister who had lost the confidence of his department should resign or be sacked. This is an innovative suggestion – if a department doesn’t like its minister, all it has to do is rat on him, sabotage his moves and ignore his instructions, and bingo, he’s out.
So inquiries began. Investigations by the Defence Security Authority initiated by the secretary of the department Nick Warner unearthed no evidence of sabotage, and ASIO released a statement that it had no evidence that Helen Liu was a security risk. The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security continued the probe but an internal investigation involving more than 1000 staff failed to uncover any evidence to back the claims that defence department officials spied on Fitzgibbon. “It remains the case that defence has found nothing to give credibility to these allegations," reported departmental secretary Nick Warner on 7 April. A final report is still to come. KPMG carried out an audit that vindicated fears by Fitzgibbon that the department had ignored an October 22 ministerial directive to halt debt-recovery action stemming from overpayment of allowances to SAS soldiers. The audit put the blame for the SAS pay bungle on an antiquated pay and salary system, outdated equipment and personnel poorly trained to handle its immense complexities. But that did not stop the Coalition from lamenting how our brave SAS soldiers were being distracted by this 'Fitzgibbon bungle'.
That every Defence minister in living memory has had problems with the torpid bureaucracy that controls that department is common knowledge. That Fitzgibbon labelled the pay section incompetent over the SAS pay issue, which it was, I suppose made him a sitting duck. But so far nobody can find who’s gunning for him, if indeed anyone is.
Then on April 9, as Fitzgibbon was preparing to hold talks with senior US Defence officials in Washington, our dogged Fairfax reporters Richard Baker, Philip Dorling and Nick McKenzie wrote another piece: Minister's new China link: "The Chinese Government had a substantial stake in the company used by businesswoman Helen Liu to help fund Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon's 1998 re-election campaign.” The labyrinthine story was boring and proved nothing. It purported to point to very sinister goings-on, but this, the fourth article in this sorry series, seemed more like a last gasp to vindicate the Fairfax ‘scoop’.
It is creditable that all this carry-on has not slowed Fitzgibbon. After his Washington trip he released the report of findings of the White Paper Community Consultation Program titled Looking over the Horizon: Australians Consider Defence, which encapsulates the findings of the consultation program, conducted as part of the White Paper development process, and on Anzac Day he was in Afghanistan with our troops.
So where does this leave us? So far nothing has emerged to support the original Fairfax story, but has Fairfax attempted to put the record straight? Has there been any redress? Instead, Fairfax has continued the smearing, hoping that eventually the story will gain credence.
How can a section of the media engage in such a beat-up, eagerly grasped by the rest of the media, which to date has found nothing to indict Fitzgibbon, has damaged his capacity to manage a notoriously difficult department, has rendered his reform agenda more difficult to effect, has unfairly smeared a ‘Chinese born’ Australian citizen, and has stirred xenophobic feelings against China?
No doubt the Coalition will attack Fitzgibbon and Rudd when parliament resumes, and try to squeeze more out of this tired story. But Fitzgibbon will stay, and hopefully will successfully bring about much need reforms to this most-difficult-to-manage department, one that in 2007/8 is consuming $22 billion, 2% of GDP.