This is what Kevin Rudd’s Standards of Ministerial Ethics says about declaring personal interests:

Ministers must declare and register their personal interests, including but not limited to pecuniary interests, as required by the Parliament from time to time…

Failure to declare or register a relevant and substantive personal interest as required by the Parliament constitutes a breach of these Standards.

And what happens when you breach the standards?

Ministers will be required to stand aside if charged with any criminal offence, or if the Prime Minister regards their conduct as constituting a prima facie breach of these Standards. Ministers will be required to resign if convicted of a criminal offence, and may be required to resign if the Prime Minister is satisfied that they have breached or failed to comply with these Standards in a substantive and material manner.

So the technical question is whether failing to declare gifts that should have been on the pecuniary interests register in 2002 and 2005 is a “substantive and material” breach. It’s hard to argue that such ancient history is substantive and material, particularly given it doesn’t directly relate to his own portfolio. If Liu was in the defence sector or was closely linked to the Chinese Government, the materiality would be rather greater.

And while Fitzgibbon gets some points for revealing it himself, doubtless he did so now in the expectation that the press and Opposition would start sniffing around his relationship with Helen Liu.

Based on Rudd’s guidelines, there was at least a case for standing Fitzgibbon aside until a full audit of his travel and any other gifts had been undertaken and established whether there was any more revelations to come. So, like previous Governments, Rudd has failed to live up to his own standards.

Some Howard Government Ministers did far worse and kept their jobs, but that’s irrelevant. That Government was the nadir of accountability and should not be permitted to set standards of ministerial conduct.

The political question is how long Fitzgibbon will last. There is a cumulative effect here, with the SAS pay debacle and now this. Until yesterday, Fitzgibbon would plead that in both cases he had been done over by his own department, but now his own judgement is in question. And the apparently total breakdown of trust between the Minister and his office and both the civilian and uniform side of Defence does not augur well for a key portfolio preparing a White Paper and handling major procurement and budget issues. But Fitzgibbon’s sacking or resignation now would in effect be to hand his scalp to the rogue elements within Defence who decided to pursue this intrusion into his private affairs. The message to bureaucrats would be clear — you can undermine unpopular ministers by refusing to cooperate and through judicious leaking of personal information.

Quite who carried out the “investigation” and their level within Defence is now the subject of urgent inquiries. Several former intelligence sources have pointed out that the Defence Signals Directorate is unlikely to have spied on any Australians, let alone their own Minister, without being specifically authorised to do so by ASIO. Clearly, however, someone found their way into Fitzgibbon’s PC (Fitzgibbon is evidently one of those rare ministers who actually uses IT). This isn’t particularly difficult — and certainly doesn’t require the DSD — on an internal Departmental network, as long as you have the appropriate administrator privileges. The possibility that the investigation was conducted with no authorisation at all by a small number of rogue departmental officers with IT access can’t be ruled out.

In any event, the Prime Minister will be furious at both Fitzgibbon and Defence. At a time when he’s wowing them on the world stage, the only issuing he’s being asked about is his Defence Minister’s errors. For a control freak and on-message obsessive like Rudd, whose every utterance is carefully calibrated for political effect, that will be deeply annoying. The Prime Ministerial displeasure has probably already been conveyed in no uncertain terms to Fitzgibbon. Despite Rudd ruling out sacking him, his tenure at Defence might not last much longer.

Check out AustralianPolitics.com for a list of ministers who have resigned or were dismissed from Federal Governments since 1901 under the conventions of collective or individual ministerial responsibility.

Peter Fray

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