Sat, Mar 28, 2009 - Page 1 News List

Australian minister under pressure to quit over PRC link

AFP , SYDNEY

Australian Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon was under pressure to resign yesterday after admitting he had accepted gifts from a wealthy Chinese businesswoman and failed to declare them.

He told a news conference he “deeply regretted” not following regulations and officially declaring two sponsored trips to China paid for by prominent Chinese-Australian Helen Liu.

“I was wrong. That was very untidy of me. It was without justification and I apologize for it,” he said.

Fitzgibbon had initially denied receiving anything other than “small gifts” from Liu, a family friend, after details of his links to the China-born businesswoman were leaked to the media.

But he admitted in a statement issued overnight that “these trips were paid for by Ms Helen Liu either personally or through her associated commercial interests. I failed to disclose those trips.”

The minister said yesterday he had assumed that the trips in 2002 and 2005 to China — when he was an opposition member of parliament — had been declared on a parliamentary register.

The trips were “a cultural exchange” during which he met Chinese political officials, he said.

The leader of the opposition Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull, called for Fitzgibbon to be sacked, saying he wanted to know who the minister had seen on his trips to China and what was discussed.

“China has a vested interest in acquiring our natural resources at low prices,” Turnbull told reporters. “The question is how much has Mr Fitzgibbon not told us.”

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who is visiting the US, expressed disappointment over Fitzgibbon's failure to declare the trips but backed his performance as defense minister.

“I'm disappointed that he did not make those declarations back then,” Rudd told reporters. “I expect better of Mr Fitzgibbon in the future.”

But, he added: “Mr Fitzgibbon is doing a good job as minister of defense, there's a big reform program in defense and he's doing a first class job.”

The reform program is believed to be behind the scandal, with disgruntled defense department staff suspected of spying on their boss — who described them as incompetent — and leaking details of his relationship with Liu.

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