CANBERRA // Australia's defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon has resigned over a series of controversies, handing prime minister Kevin Rudd his first political crisis since his centre-left government won office in late 2007. The development is a blow to Mr Rudd as Mr Fitzgibbon was a factional ally and the senior minister in his government from the most populous New South Wales state, a crucial state when it comes to winning national elections. "Obviously I feel sad about this, but it's important that we maintain high standards of ministerial accountability. That's why I believe the minister has acted appropriately," Mr Rudd told reporters.
The resignation gives Mr Rudd the option of reshuffling his cabinet, although he would only say he would announce a replacement defence minister soon. Mr Rudd said Mr Fitzgibbon had paid a high price for mistakes he made in disclosing travel and gifts, and for a potential business conflict involving his brother and the defence department. As defence minister, Mr Fitzgibbon oversaw the withdrawal of Australian combat forces from Iraq, and the development of a new defence strategy for Australia for the next 20 years, including plans to buy new ships, planes and submarines.
But Mr Fitzgibbon has been targeted by the opposition since early 2009 for failing to properly disclose trips to China, taken before he was a minister, paid for by a Chinese family friend. Mr Fitzgibbon earlier this week also told parliament he had failed to disclose the cost of a night in a hotel, paid for by health insurance company NIB Holdings NHF.AX, which is run by his brother. But his resignation came after it was disclosed Mr Fitzgibbon's ministerial office had been involved in meetings between his brother's company and government departments.
Mr Fitzgibbon said he resigned because he may have broken Mr Rudd's code of ministerial conduct. "On that basis, and to protect the integrity of the government, I have decided to resign as a member of the executive, effective immediately," Mr Fitzgibbon said in his letter of resignation. * Reuters