They got their man. But who are ‘they’?
First it must be accepted that Joel Fitzgibbon shot himself in the foot – several times. So when it all boils down he has only himself to blame for his exit to the backbench. The first-revealed misdemeanours of not recording gifts on the pecuniary interests register betrayed lack of attention to such requirements, an air of carelessness, but were forgiven. The one that brought him undone was lack of probity in his relationship with his brother and his colleagues seeking Defence Department contracts for health care. [more]
There is a flurry of articles in the weekend press about the Fitzgibbon saga, perhaps none more detailed that one in The Age by Shaun Carney No valid defence who sets out to defend the Fairfax Press’ involvement. He says: “Other sections of the media have been asserting in the past two days that the original reports about people in Defence spying on Fitzgibbon were wrong, discredited and unfounded because two investigations, by the department and the Inspector-General of Intelligence of Security, have come up empty-handed. Which makes you wonder: how could the information that came into the possession of reporters Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie of The Age and Philip Dorling on The Canberra Times have come about? Was it conjured out of thin air and it then turned out to be true through some sort of cosmic accident?” The Political Sword has criticized Fairfax and the journalists for making allegations that the Defence Department was spying on its own minister, including accessing his computer and banking files, which two thorough investigations found unproven. Carney’s article does not ‘prove them’ either. Rather it asserts that “There was a conspiracy against Joel Fitzgibbon within the Defence establishment. Various means were used to collect and confirm information, which was put before higher-ups in Defence and ignored, and then leaked.” That there was leaking is not contested by Fitzgibbon who also believes that people in his Department did a ‘Judas’ on him, and perhaps people on his own staff as well.
So where does that leave us? The facts are now common knowledge. How they emerged is the matter of contention. Why did Fairfax not say at the outset that they had received leaked information from inside Defence about the Helen Liu association and the other matters? Why did Fairfax promote the ‘spying’ story in the first place? There are numerous instances of whistleblowers leaking damaging information about ministers or their associates. Why not state it as it seems by their own admission to be the case? By playing the spying story they have caused a lot of work on fruitless investigations.
Fairfax’s approach remains questionable, not because it correctly described the facts of the Fitzgibbon affair, but because it wrapped it in the Defence spies on its minister story by Richard Baker, Philip Dorling and Nick McKenzie on March 26. Recall that this story began with the words “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.” Words like that left no alternative but to carry out intensive, prolonged and expensive investigations into these allegations. A simple report of ‘leaking’ would not.
In his article in The Weekend Australian, A good minister despite misdemeanours Greg Sheridan has a different view. He insists "It seems the people plotting against him were not Defence Department spies, as fairly fatuously alleged in the Fairfax press, but people somewhat closer to him who decided to do him harm." This contradiction is a reflection of the rivalry between two mega media empires.
So who’s right? We’ll never know.
By any account Fairfax has not covered itself in glory over this matter. Its involvement is an example of undistinguished journalism, despite Carney’s attempts to defend it.
To come back to the beginning, who are ‘they’?
If the past history of the Defence Department is any guide, there is a culture and modus operandi that exist there where the so-called ‘generals’ believe they should call the shots rather than the government and its Defence minister. There is also said to be inefficiencies, some the result of the complexity and geographic dispersion of the department, and a chronic inability to select the most appropriate hardware, find the right price and effect timely delivery. The department needs a shake-up, and for that a strong and determined minister is needed, one that won’t allow himself to be worn down by those who believe they should run the show, or eroded by those who wish to frustrate governmental or ministerial decisions. It is unacceptable that what has happened to Fitzgibbon, and used by Fairfax, should be allowed to happen to his successor.
In his piece Greg Sheridan lauds Fitzgibbon in his opening words “Part of the tragedy of Joel Fitzgibbon's demise is that he had the makings of a very good defence minister. Virtually all the decisions of substance he made in his portfolio were the right decisions. He also maintained the Government's integrity of defence funding. Those are the big portfolio questions on which his performance as defence minister should be judged.” So while we cannot defend Fitzgibbons impropriety as a minister of the Government, we should not label him as incompetent, as the Opposition does. Rather he should be commended for what he has achieved in eighteen months including a White Paper that will transform Defence in a major way as it prepares for its changed role in the decades ahead.
So the endgame for Fitzgibbon has arrived, although the Opposition is still muttering darkly about ‘more to come’. But ‘they’ need to be ferreted out so that they cannot erode the next incumbent. Otherwise there will be another endgame.
Fitzgibbon’s replacement, John Faulkner, is not a person to be fobbed off. He deserves the support of all who understand the crucial importance of Australia’s defence capability and its capacity to meet the emerging challenges of tomorrow.