Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean that they’re not after you. Joel Fitzgibbon had his persecutors, certainly in the Defence Department, probably within the Labor caucus and possibly even in his own office.
But just because your supposed colleagues are ratting on you, it doesn’t mean you’re innocent. Fitzgibbon, already on a yellow card for his serial failure to declare gifts and favours rendered, finally crossed the line in his staff’s dealing with his brother.
Some, at least, of them took place behind his back, but this is no excuse. Kevin Rudd, to whom integrity is both a personal and political imperative, could not longer afford to keep him.
In many ways this is a pity; Fitzgibbon was already a good defence minister and showed the potential to become a great one. He took on the Colonel Blimps, attacked the culture of financial nonchalance, proposed an ambitious program of reform and took a refreshingly realistic attitude to the war in Afghanistan.
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His overall approach was to question and undermine the sacred cow status Defence had enjoyed for far too long. John Howard had five defence ministers, only two of whom — Robert Hill and Brendan Nelson — even pretended to take the job seriously. Fitzgibbon certainly did, and he will be missed.
His legacy may well proceed under John Faulkner, whose bullshit detector remains the sharpest in the parliament. Faulkner is perhaps the only one of Rudd’s ministry with the experience and drive to take on the warlords of Russell Hill, and was the obvious choice. But his appointment comes at a huge price. It may well cost Australia its last, best chance of genuine reform of the political infrastructure.
Faulkner’s previous job was as cabinet secretary and Special Minister of State, a portfolio which has been treated with a certain cynicism in the past. When Fred Daly, jokester and numbers man, held it during Gough Whitlam’s government, he described himself as “The Minister for Winning Elections,” and so it frequently seemed.
Among other things the job entails the oversight of the Electoral Commission with its responsibility for electoral boundaries and redistributions, for resolving polling disputes and policing donations to political parties. The Commission is, of course, legally independent, but the minister still has a key role in setting its agenda. Ministers from both sides have, in the past, shown no reluctance to do so in the hope of securing political advantage for their parties. But Faulkner is different. A long-time student and critic of the system as it exists, he is a sincere reformer.
In his relatively brief tenure he has attempted to enhance and improve the integrity and transparency of the donations regime — a move vehemently opposed by Malcolm Turnbull and his coalition; he has tackled the difficult problem of government advertising in accordance with Rudd’s election promise to take the politics out of it; he has set up a body to monitor ethics within the public service and foreshadowed laws to protect whistleblowers; and, most importantly, he has undertaken massive reform to Australia’s much abused Freedom of Information legislation.
These are changes which, if honestly implemented, will not only vastly improve Australia’s system of government, but could be a major step in restoring public respect for the tarnished political process.
In his spare time, Faulkner also looked at wider questions of government accountability and of public participation in the whole democratic process, with special concern for inarticulate and disadvantaged groups such as Aboriginal Australians. This broad and fair-minded philosophical concern would be rare within the party system at any time; coming from one of the most pragmatic, seasoned and powerful members of a naturally cautious government it is virtually unique. One can only hope that Faulkner’s successor, the relatively untried Joe Ludwig, has the will, guts and influence to push on with it.
Ludwig is, of course, one of the indirect beneficiaries of Fitzgibbon’s demise and the simultaneous decision of the Home Affairs minister, Bob Debus, to head for the sidelines on his way off the field. The fact that others included Chris Bowen, Greg Combet and Mark Arbib prompted the more excitable members of the opposition to start hinting darkly at the power of the dreaded right wing mafia from N0ew South Wales: “Payback time!” they cried, implying that the appointments were almost as evil as Rudd’s acceptance of a second-hand ute as a campaign vehicle.
But apart from the obvious — all three promotions could be very easily justified on sheer merit — the timing of the accusation was unfortunate, in that it coincided with a series of articles explaining that Rudd’s deputy, Julia Gillard, was now universally accepted within the party as the natural heir to the leadership should St Kevin succumb to premature martyrdom.
Nothing signals more clearly the breaking of the power of the faction system, and of the New South Wales Right in particular. Julia Gillard is a member (or perhaps in these non-factional times one should say ex-member) of the Victorian Socialist Left, the sworn ancestral enemies of the previously dominant Right. Even three years ago she would have been utterly unacceptable to the New South Wales enforcers; indeed, the last time the party even toyed with the idea of lefty leader was when Jim Cairns challenged Gough Whitlam back in 1968.
Now, while the heavies are not quite prepared to offer Gillard public endorsement, they are resigned — even content — to accept her as the natural alternative. Her energy, talent and sheer bloody-mindedness have won them round. The factions are not utterly dead and buried; they still hold desultory meetings and see themselves and each other as blocs to negotiate outcomes within the broader caucus. But their power to make and break is over.
This is one of Rudd’s great gifts to his party. It is yet to be seen if he can deliver the benefits to the system as a whole, which appeared so hopeful under John Faulkner.