Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon resigns

| 04.06,09. 11:16 PM |

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon resigns

June 04, 2009 01:30pm

DEFENCE Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has quit after revelations of special deals for his brother, the head of a health insurer.

The MP for the Hunter allowed his ministerial office to be used for meetings between his brother Mark, head of the NIB health group and representative of US health group Humana, and two ministers.

Mark Fitzgibbon was seeking work with the defence Department and met veterans’ Affairs Minister Alan Griffin and Defence Science Minister Warren Snowdon.

He is the first casualty for the Rudd Government and Fitzgibbon’s departure will force a reshuffle. Fitzgibbon told Prime Minister Kevin Rudd n a letter he had not confirmed with the Ministerial Code of Conduct.

”In particular, I have learned that one meeting between the parties was held in my ministerial office,’’ he said in his letter to Mr Rudd.

"Further, I understand that members of my staff sat in on a number of meetings. “

”Again, despite my decision to avoid being a part of any discussions between the parties, I am not absolutely satisfied that that objective was achieved to the extent necessary to ensure full compliance with your Ministerial Code of Conduct. “

”On that basis, and to protect the integrity of the Government, I have decided to resign as a member of the executive (the ministry), immediately.’’

Mr Rudd said resignation was Fitzgibbon’s decision after talks with a senior member of his staff and Special Minister for State John Faulkner.

The Prime Minister said he had been a first rate defence Minister. Fitzgibbon was caught out failing to declare trips to China funded by a prominent Chinese businesswoman.

"He's discharged his function as minister in a first-class way," he said.

But this week he also had to admit that he had not declared accommodation costs paid for by his brother on a trip to Brisbane last year.

Mr Rudd said Mr Fitzgibbon had offered his resignation and that he had accepted it.

"It was the right thing to do", Mr Rudd said.

The prime minister said he expected high standards of accountability from every minister.

"I've made clear to my ministers over a long period of time the government expects high standards of accountability on the part of it ministers," Mr Rudd told reporters.

"All my ministers are familiar with that and it's on that basis the minister has extended his resignation."

Mr Rudd said Mr Fitzgibbon came to his office about 1pm today to offer his letter of resignation.

"I accepted it, I believed it was the right thing to do," the prime minister said.

Major-General Paul Alexander, who is in charge of defence health services, told a parliamentary committee that staff members of a junior minister and defence staff told him to attend the meetings attended by Mark Fitzgibbon, the chief executive of insurer NIB Health.

General Alexander said he was at a meeting with officials of US health insurer Humana on August 27 last year.

Mark Fitzgibbon was at the meeting and appeared to "sponsor" Humana officials, General Alexander said.

It follows admissions two months ago that he failed to declare trips to China paid for by Chinese-born businesswoman Helen Liu.

This week he also admitted he had failed to declare hotel accommodation paid for by NIB.

Mr Fitzgibbon's failure to declare a hotel room in Brisbane was a minor breach, Mr Rudd said.

"I was unhappy about it but we let that matter rest."

The matter over which he resigned is "different".

"It goes to the question of the undertakings that the minister made publicly in March this year, and concerning the relationship between himself and his office and this particular company, Humana, and NIB which of course is headed by his brother."

Mr Rudd acknowledged Mr Fitzgibbon had made mistakes in regards to matters of accountability.

"And he's paid a high price," he said.

"The minister has accepted responsibility for these mistakes, they are mistakes in relation to accountability, there have been a number of them.

"This one does represent a significant departure from the undertakings the minister gave publicly on this particular matter."

Mr Rudd stressed the government was not contractually involved with any of the players in this latest episode.

"On the substance of any contractual agreement between either NIB, the company Humana or the Australian government, there has none, there is none," he said.

Mr Rudd said Mr Fitzgibbon had earlier said he was not involved in the handling of the NIB matter.

"What he has informed us of today is that his staff did attend meetings with NIB on this matter and furthermore, that one of those meetings occurred within his office," the prime minister said.

The prime minister suggested there wouldn't be a broader reshuffle of cabinet when Mr Fitzgibbon's replacement was announced.

"I think it's important to take things step by step," he said.

"It's important to get on with the business of government.

"I've never been in the business of saying change for changes sake." Mr Rudd said human beings have weaknesses and the ability to make mistakes.

"Therefore, obviously I feel sad about this but it is important that we maintain high standards of ministerial accountability."

Mr Fitzgibbon had admitted members of his staff had sat in on a number of meetings with NIB on the subject of Humana.

"It is on the basis of those two things, which are different from what the minister had declared before, that he concluded that it was right that he extend his letter of resignation.

"He's done so and it is the right course of action."


Mr Rudd denied the Department of Defence had white-anted its minister.

Mr Fitzgibbon had shared a good working relationship with his department and defence force chief Angus Houston.

"But it follows that in any dealings with a very large organisation from time to time things are going to go wrong," Mr Rudd said.

The prime minister reiterated that the mistake was on the part of Mr Fitzgibbon and that he had full confidence in the department and the Australian Defence Force.

Mr Rudd said the new defence minister would attend a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) meeting in Belgium next week, and be able to cope with the detailed discussions.

When asked whether Mr Fitzgibbon could ever return as a minister in a Rudd government, the prime minister replied: "I don't believe in anything called life sentences for these ... sorts of things.

"It's a matter about how people conduct themselves and what work they do and what application they apply."

 Daily Telegraph

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