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.