Fiddling While It Burns

The defence minister who flew too close to the sun | 27/03/2009

Don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s easy to keep a blog that provides a decent round-out of the national security debate, because I’m here to tell you it ain’t. Just when I’m trying to do a decent post with some depth on the Chinalco attempts to get a major stake in Rio Tinto, and the broader issue of foreign investment by sovereign wealth funds, the smouldering embers of Joel FitzGibbon’s feuding with the general staff explode into a conflagration.

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

Helen Liu, left, and Joel FitzGibbon using his contrite face, right. Photo: Peter Rae, via SMH.

Helen Liu, left, and Joel FitzGibbon using his contrite face, right. Photo: Peter Rae, via SMH.

THE Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, was forced into an embarrassing apology last night for failing to declare two trips to China paid for by a Chinese-Australian businesswoman, Helen Liu. Her relationship with the minister,as revealed in the Herald yesterday, allegedly prompted defence officials to illegally spy on him.

Don’t worry, that sound isn’t gunfire, it’s just the noise of every champagne bottle in Russell Offices being opened at once.

Joel FitzGibbon is… not a popular man with uniformed members. He started in the position with a plan for efficiency savings that involved cutting existing budgets to fund new defence activities. After bathing in unearned funding increases for the entirety of the Howard years, Defence was not happy to suddenly find itself asked to cut spending, particularly since the most obvious thing to cut is mid-level Defence member’s favourite perk, “liaison visits” that take them to lovely spots like Cairns and Perth and pay them a nice little lump of tax-free money to get rolling drunk with.

Things are tense enough between Defence and its minister at the best of times. Defence members join to serve; politicians are creatures of pure ego. Defence members lean heavily Liberal politically to begin with, and stories of FitzGibbon’s personal arrogance rocketed around the ADF like electricity through a careless home improvement buff. Once FitzGibbon started throwing his weight around over the political blood nose he took over the SAS pay issues and threatened to sack generals, things were primed to get ugly.

And so they have. The unsourced allegation running in all the papers is that the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) pried into FitzGibbon’s personal affairs and discovered dodgy bank transactions involving Helen Liu, a prominent Chinese-Australian businesswoman with high-level connections in the Chinese Government. If so, the order would have come from quite high – DSD activities are closely monitored and doing anything untoward would require collaboration. The question of what is and isn’t illegal in the DSD’s activities is unlikely to play out in the national media – after the Global War on Terror’s radical expansion of domestic spying in the US and other nations, no one in power wants to shine too much light on our own programs. I think that aspect of the story can be relied on to die a natural death without any heads rolling.

The questions now are, what are the wages of sin for a minister who allowed dubious gifts to create the appearance of possible improper influence, and will Kevin Rudd tolerate a minister in such an important portfolio to whom a scent of scandal will now cling?

The answer may lie in the post-white paper environment. Defence in this century is in an ugly position, with the stark choice of either radical spending expansion or the acceptance New Zealand came to years ago that we can’t beat out nations ten times our size when those nations are slightly less than dirt-poor. The Joint Strike Fighter is a lame duck and will be inferior to Russian fighters likely to be in wide use in both China and Indonesia, while the Army has blown its load on 59 tanks it will never need. The Navy has never had any pretensions to war-fighting significance – if you’re not willing to pay for carrier-groups, then all you can afford are the fishing police.

Howard's folly - the M1A1 Abrams tanks the Army wanted, and now doesn't know what to do with. Photo: Department of Defence.

Howard's Folly - one of the M1A1 Abrams tanks the Army wanted, and now doesn't know what to do with. Photo: Department of Defence.

Perhaps in this impossible position lies FitzGibbon’s eventual fate; Kevin Rudd is a canny politician, and no doubt smart enough to know he’s going to need to knock someone over Defence at some point. Why replace an incompetent with a talented player he knows he’ll have to crucify eventually?



  1. […] priorities. Hugh White has drawn to common attention something that I discussed at the end of apost a few weeks ago – Australia is at a critical strategic juncture. As Asian economies grow and increase their defence […]

    Pingback by David Kilcullen and Hugh White « Fiddling While It Burns: terrorism and national security at the end of history — 30/04/2009 @ 1:40 am

  2. […] Labor’s loyalties might lie a little too close to Beijing. It first became an issue through Joel FitzGibbon’s foolishness, and has been potential political dynamite, particularly when it comes to state-owned Chinese […]

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