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.

Improvements to political donations legislation

Around a couple of weeks ago, Special Minister of State John Faulkner announced the introduction of some much-awaited electoral law changes into the Senate in the form of a bill. These sorts of small, incremental reforms often go unmentioned when it comes to the leading news headlines of the day, but represent the bread and butter of good governance that we all would like to be able to take for granted. While the Howard Government during its final terms was seemingly willing to go to machiavellian lengths [PDF] to bend the system to its advantage, in the admittedly fresh-faced Rudd Labor Government we have an administration willing to improve the nation’s electoral system at the expense of the two major parties in this country.

The major reforms being introduced include a 90% decrease in the disclosure threshold for donations, a ban of overseas donations, and an overall tightening of the reporting regime and associated penalties under the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1918. For the average voter this is unlikely to be particularly spellbinding stuff, but clearly the mechanisms of our democracy should not just be left to rust and diminish over time. In the modern era, when we consider the speed and volume at which money can flow across the globe and of course from corporate accounts into political party coffers over boozy lunches, we have every reason to have a good hard think about the relevant laws and how we can improve them. That John Faulkner as Special Minister of State is wasting little time in acting and has already alluded to the fact that there will likely be more reforms yet to come is something that we should be proud of as a nation.

The first part of a green paper focusing on funding, disclosure and expenditure issues is due in July 2008, with the second part focusing on other potential improvements due in October 2008. In particular, two issues I would encourage the government to tackle as part of the second part of the paper would be a rollback of the Howard Government’s draconian changes to electoral roll closing dates and somewhat more progressively, allowing young adults 16 and over to voluntarily enrol to vote should they wish to. I don’t see why young people who are well and truly old enough to make decisions about politics and want to have their say should be denied the opportunity.

Reshaping the architecture of government

If we can draw any firm conclusion about the Howard Government’s wielding of political power during its final term in office, it would almost certainly align with the old adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Although the government obviously did not enjoy absolute power, its manner of control of the Senate during its final term and indeed its handling of certain matters under its jurisdiction (such as the Haneef case) suggest that when it came to the crunch, base political want was king. On a number of issues in particular (e.g. our old favourite WorkChoices), it is quite clear that if the architecture of government was exploitable for potential misuse, and the government had a good political reason to misuse it, it often did so.

Coming from this somewhat toxic background, it’s no real surprise that the views and approach of the new Immigration and Citizenship Minister, Chris Evans, are a breath of fresh air. Over three years later, the change of government appears to have finally resulted in Cornelia Rau receiving justice and closure, after her epic ordeal at the hands of the Immigration Department. As Jewel Topsfield reports for the SMH, one has to wonder what former Minister Kevin Andrews thinks about these sorts of statements from Evans:

Immigration Minister Chris Evans has admitted he is uncomfortable “playing God” and has ordered a review into his own role, claiming he believed his position had too much power.

“I have formed the view that I have too much power … in terms of the power given to the minister to make decisions about individual cases,” he said. “I’m uncomfortable with that, not just because of concern about playing God, but also because of the lack of transparency and accountability for those decisions.”

It is hard to imagine any of the former Howard Government Immigration Ministers uttering any sentiment along these lines, and the reason for this is that the new government has a somewhat different way of viewing the architecture of government. Late into the previous government’s reign, in particular, there was hardly any question of federal government processes or governance mechanisms being revised or updated, unless of course strong pressure was applied on a given issue by the Opposition. In contrast, what we are seeing with the Rudd Government is some long overdue process house-cleaning. Arguably this is at least partially politically motivated, with the new government making hay out of the opportunity to point out all the odious things the previous government got up to, but there is also some evidence (e.g. renowned “straight and narrow” man John Faulkner’s ongoing role as Special Minister of State) suggesting that the government truly does have benevolent motives.

In any case, one hopes that the new government continues with this line of work throughout its tenure, and does not just abandon it when it becomes politically expedient to do so. The experience of the previous government should serve as a useful reminder of how negative public perceptions have the potential to snowball, when buffeted by repeated ministerial misdemeanours. This only happens, of course, if the government’s ministers and parliamentary members are perceived to be much more interested in slithering through governance loopholes than fixing them.