Latham’s little mate won’t return to frontbench
The biggest fib Kevin Rudd told today, after he’d lavished insincere praise upon Joel Fitzgibbon for his work as Defence Minister, was to declare the young Hunter Valley MP could return to the ministry at some stage.
As long as Kevin Rudd’s backside points to the ground, Joel Fitzgibbon has a better chance of becoming the next Pope than making a ministerial comeback.
And most people in the ALP will be pretty happy about that, as Fitzgibbon, for all his affable, knockabout charm, has long been regarded by many colleagues with suspicion and ambivalence on account of what was a long-standing and especially close friendship with disastrous former leader Mark Latham.
Despite his likeable demeanour and his easy front-bar style, for years Fitzgibbon was described in Labor circles somewhat derisively as “Latham’s little mate”. The two men regularly drank and ate together, and could often be found hanging out with the journos well into the evening at events such as national conference or on budget night.
His association with such a divisive and hostile figure as Latham was of itself enough for many in the party to regard Fitzgibbon unfavourably.
When Latham, his head cropped with a number two buzzcut, stormed out of the leadership with a cursory press conference at a suburban Sydney park in early 2005, Fitzgibbon and Julia Gillard were about the only two people in the party who remained on speaking terms with Latham.
In his diaries Latham systematically shredded almost every friendship he had in the party, save for Fitzgibbon.
But in what must have been a deeply hurtful personal betrayal, Latham used his column in Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review just last month to fuel the rumour mill against his apparent friend, over the Madam Liu disclosure scandal.
“The Fitzgibbons [father Eric, and son Joel] have not always been very smart in their dealings with businesswoman Helen Liu. During my time in public life I never encountered MPs so engaged, politically and financially, with a business benefactor.”
It was an act of bastardry stung the family, with Eric Fitzgibbon telling The Sydney Morning Herald: “I think Joel always did the right thing by Mark, stuck by him through thick and thin…[Mr Latham] may feel deserted by his friends and Joel was probably his closest friend and he is probably resentful. I’m not sure.”
Politics is a handicapped race and many in the party believe Fitzgibbon only ever ended up in the frame for a ministry under Kevin Rudd because he had jumped the queue under Latham.
His presence on the frontbench was regarded by many as a legacy of that mad period in the party’s history - as well as the result of the byzantine factional arrangements in NSW where the Right Faction demands and receives a certain number of spots, and strongholds such as the Hunter must also be represented.
If his appointment to defence encouraged the belief among talented backbenchers that Labor is not a meritocracy, his conduct as minister cemented it as a very commonly-held conviction. It wasn’t as if the portfolio itself was a shambles - even though he had clearly fallen foul of the ADF chiefs, who fancy themselves adept at re-making ministers in their own image.
He was flat out doing something as simple as remembering the basic disclosure requirements, for which he is now gone.
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