Cutting him loose

There’s quite a lot ado about parliamentary expenses at the moment, a little bit locally, but to paraphrase the Prime Minister, there’s a whole shitstorm going on in the United Kingdom right now. Even as Kevin Rudd clings gingerly to repeat-offender Joel Fitzgibbon like one does with a somewhat disliked cousin, it is beginning to look as though the ever-escalating UK expenses scandal might be the straw that finally breaks the back of the Brown Labour Government.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is reportedly set to resign from Cabinet, and Communities Secretary Hazel Blears resigned in a shock announcement today. Now backbenchers are threatening to push a petition letter throughout the partyroom calling for Gordon Brown to abdicate, and the Guardian has taken the extraordinary step of calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation in an editorial:

All must agree that the die is cast and a hard judgment made. Otherwise progressive politics will be dragged down at a general election in May 2010 that could lead to a much bigger defeat than Labour suffered in 1979. That might bring a chance for other parties to take it forward, as the Liberal Democrats are trying to do in this election. But they are not placed to enter government. Labour has a year left before an election; its current leader would waste it. It is time to cut him loose.

It’s a little unfair that Gordon Brown should be made to pay a price for the current expenses drama, a drama in which every sitting member of parliament has a stake. The Guardian editorial is nevertheless spot on. Gordon Brown has been given a good run, but he and his government remain on an express train to electoral irrelevance at the polls next year unless something drastically, and changes very soon indeed.

Roll on David Miliband as a fresh alternative to Gordon Brown, and a man of more substance than David Cameron.

Why Joel Fitzgibbon should seriously consider standing down

While it is fair to say that he has not been in the forefront of the Rudd Government’s activities over the past year and five months, Special Minister of State John Faulkner has still been one of the government’s strongest performers. In the news last week after announcing a frankly remarkable wave of FOI reforms, Faulkner has been a man on a mission to improve Australia’s democracy since Federal Labor took office. The temptation for some hardheads within the government to simply adopt the Howard Government’s ministerial standards must have been considerable. I get the distinct impression that Faulkner’s seniority and his personal views on the importance of having a robust and transparent democratic system in Australia have kept the Labor party-room relatively honest and the government heading in the right direction.

Unfortunately, Faulkner’s strong performance and the efforts the Rudd Government has gone to in order to keep itself squeaky clean have been undermined by the recent trials of Joel Fitzgibbon in the Defence portfolio. It has been an ugly and unfortunate little stretch for the Defence Minister, from the ADF pay saga to the latest incident, in which Fitzgibbon was forced to apologise after failing to disclose some gifts from Chinese businesswoman Helen Liu whilst in Opposition. Thus far, the government has thrown its weight behind the embattled Minister, arguing that Fitzgibbon has apologised for his mistake, it is in the past, and that he is doing some good work in reforming his department. I do think there is a reasonable case for giving Fitzgibbon one more roll of the dice, but I also think that the government is undermining its integrity agenda by not enforcing stricter standards.

In its first term, the Howard Government was quite strong-handed in sacking or forcing the resignation of ministers. I hope that Federal Labor realises that it is walking a dangerous tightrope by allowing Fitzgibbon to remain in his portfolio without considerable sanction.

The new meaning of “divestment of interests”

I was disappointed to read that it appears that Federal Labor has made its first significant bungle on the governance transparency front: it has emerged that a $60,000 media contract for the 2020 Summit was awarded without public tender to a company that until recently was run by Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon’s media advisor, Christian Taubenschlag. The incident is now going to be investigated by the Government Staffing Committee, which is a good sign, but there still seems to be something of a potentially less than squeaky clean character going on here.

The government has previously defended the tender-less awarding of the contract using the argument that there was not enough time to conduct a tender process in this case. As Bernard Keane so succinctly puts it for Crikey, though, that’s nonsense; something approaching a tender process could still have been carried out. Corners were clearly cut and cut crudely. While this contract does fall within the Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines with a value of under $80,000, there are numerous existing precedents for contracts of this size going out to public tender.

Certainly the role of Christian Taubenschlag in all this is not yet completely apparent. As Jewel Topsfield reports, Taubenschlag seemingly did indeed made an effort to clear the decks financially when he joined Fitzgibbon’s staff:

Mr Taubenschlag said earlier this month that he had not played any role in the company after starting his job at Mr Fitzgibbon’s office, other than starting the process of giving up his stake in CMAX Communications.

“I began divesting myself of all interest in CMAX Communications from January 2008. This process was fully finalised in April 2008,” he said.

On the other hand, this observation from the same story seems to undermine Taubenschlag’s comments completely:

A spokesman for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Mr Taubenschlag ceased playing any active role in the company when he joined the Defence Minister’s office and the company was now run by his wife, Tara Taubenschlag.

Now is it really accurate to say that one has divested one’s interest in a company if one’s partner is now running the company? This is a joke, right? In fairness, it is not clear whether there has really been any impropriety in this instance, but in the very least the awarding of this contract has a questionable odour about it and looks ugly for the government. It contradicts Special Minister of State John Faulkner’s recent admirable emphasis on transparency and good governance, and quite frankly I think if the government is to maintain its good image it needs to act quickly here.

This matter needs to be investigated and the investigation completed as soon as possible, and I think it is only reasonable that the position of whoever was involved in cutting corners with potential contract candidates be reconsidered as part of this process.