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Joel Fitzgibbon: No stranger to controversy

The controversy that seems to follow Member for Hunter Joel Fitzgibbon doesn’t seem to bother his constituents, writes Declan Boffa.

Joel Fitzgibbon has traversed a rocky road as a member of the Australian Labor Party. In his 16 year political career Fitzgibbon has worked under five Labor leaders, has overcome a spy controversy and has

Source: APH

struggled through a poor relationship with current Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Despite these setbacks Fitzgibbon remains a vital member of the current Labor administration.

Fitzgibbon was born born in Bellingen, New South Wales in 1962 and is a man with many hats. He has a Graduate Certificate in Business Administration, worked as an electrician and spent almost a decade on the Cessnock City Council.

Fitzgibbon was elected as the federal member for Hunter in central New South Wales in 1996 where the Fitzgibbon name was already synonymous with politics. His father Eric Fitzgibbon had been the federal member for Hunter since 1984. Once elected into parliament Fitzgibbon worked in a number of roles within the Labor party.

Fitzgibbon was the Shadow Minister for Mining, Energy and Forestry between 2003 and 2005. Following this he became the Shadow Assistant Treasurer under Wayne Swan. However, it was under Kevin Rudd where Fitzgibbon made his biggest step, becoming the Shadow Defence Minister in late 2006.

Fitzgibbon became Australia’s Minster for Defence after the 2007 election victory, taking over the role at a turbulent time in Australian foreign relations. Australia was – and still is – deep in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as small roles in the Solomon Islands and East Timor. As Defence Minister, Fitzgibbon oversaw the removal of Australian troops from Iraq and also set out plans to slowly withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

The position of Defence Minister is one of the high profile roles in parliament and was a true indication of how highly Fitzgibbon was regarded within the Labor party under Kevin Rudd.

But Fitzgibbon soon found himself in embroiled in controversy. In early 2009 Fitzgibbon’s own defence department investigated his relationship with Chinese businesswoman, Helen Liu, believing that it would pose a security risk to Australia. He was forced to defend his 16 year long relationship with Liu and explain two trips to China that Liu had paid for. He even had his parliamentary computer accessed by the Defence Department.

Then, in June of 2009, Fitzgibbon was finally forced to resign as Defence Minister after he publicly admitted that he had authorised a secret meeting to be held in his parliamentary office between his brother Mark Fitzgibbon, who is head of the health fund company NIB, and prominent US health fund Humana.

Fitzgibbon’s redemption and acceptance back into parliament came following the 2010 Federal Election as he won his fifth term as member for Hunter, being elected on a margin of 4.3 per cent. From here he was appointed as the government whip in the Gillard administration.

His ability to win his sixth election speaks volumes of his ability to redeem himself, not only to his party but to the people of Hunter. As government whip, Fitzgibbon has once again taken on a major role in the current Labor party overseeing government discipline and all chamber voting. As whip he has continued to push for a senior role in the Gillard administration

However, Fitzgibbon has been forced to overcome more controversy. In 2011 he had to apologise to deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop for making a catcall while Bishop was speaking in parliament. Fitzgibbon was criticised from both sides of parliament and the incident came just a month after Liberal Senator David Bushby was lambasted for a catcall made against climate change Minister Penny Wong.

Fitzgibbon was reprimanded by Prime Minister Gillard and was forced to publicly apologise. The controversy further contributed to Fitzgibbon’s rocky relationship with the current Prime Minister.

In a Labor party cabinet reshuffle in March of this year, Fitzgibbon missed out on being promoted back to the front bench and was only offered a junior parliamentary secretary position.

Fitzgibbon chose to remain as chief government whip after the reshuffle and chose not to take the junior parliamentary role he was offered. His decision to remain in the Gillard cabinet refuted claims he was going to resign over the reshuffle. Fitzgibbon’s poor relationship with Gillard has been a contrast to his strong relationship with ousted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Despite all the drama and scandal Fitzgibbon remains a key member of the Labor party and has certainly learnt how to bounce back from adversity.


Declan Boffa is a student at La Trobe University.

To view profiles of some of the other backbenchers as part of upstart’sBackbench Insiders project, click here.

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