Joel Fitzgibbon has now breached the Government’s Standards of Ministerial Ethics twice and, if those standards have any meaning, should step aside. The Standards state:
Failure to declare or register a relevant and substantive personal interest as required by the Parliament constitutes a breach of these 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.
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Where an allegation involving improper conduct of a significant kind, including a breach of these Standards, is made against a Minister (including the Prime Minister) the Prime Minister may refer the matter to an appropriate independent authority for investigation and/or advice.
$450 may not exactly be a “substantive personal interest”, particularly if the omission may partly have been the consequence of NIB failing to accept his payment for hospitality. It’s small beer. But in the context of his failure to adequately disclose gifts from Helen Liu, any further omission no matter how small should be regarded with the utmost gravity.
At the very least, under the terms of the Standards, he should step aside while an independent audit of his records is undertaken — as the Standards provide — as to whether there are any other omissions.
More particularly, however, there are real questions about Fitzgibbon’s office after this. It’s unbelievable after the Liu shenanigans earlier this year that there would be a single undotted i or uncrossed t in anything from Fitzgibbon. This is not merely the office of a Minister of the Crown but the one with oversight of the biggest budget and national defence.
That the Prime Minister had to prompt Fitzgibbon to check again after the Opposition flagged it would be after him when he returned to Parliament this week must be deeply irritating to Rudd. And then there’s the capacity for this to muddy the waters at a time when the Government’s messaging on the economy and Opposition disunity should be at its strongest.
Only the sheer triviality of the offence has saved Fitzgibbon. Not even that might save him if there’s any sort of repeat.