Scandals claim seven Howard ministers

John Howard came to office in 1996 promising higher standards of ministerial accountability but lost seven ministers in less than a year.

John Howard

John Howard lost seven ministers in less than a year after taking office in 1996. (AAP) Source: SBS

The Howard government nowadays has a reputation for consistency, dogged reform and principle, which invites comparison with some more recent governments.

But there was a period when it seemed it wouldn't manage more than a single term, thanks partly to a succession of MPs and ministers quitting or being fired, some for what speedily became known as "travel rorts."

During its 11 years from 1996 to 2007, the Howard government lost nine ministers for various acts of impropriety, seven in less than a year in the period October 1996 to the end of September 1997.

Two fell on a single day, September 24, 1997 and the next on September 26, surely contributing to growing public disenchantment reflected in Labor leading in the polls.

Then the government got its act together and there was a big gap until the last two, both in March 2007.

For most, the consequence was loss of a ministerial position and eventually departure from politics.

One came perilously close to getting time in the big house and not the one on a hill in the middle of Canberra. That was up and coming Liberal MP Bob Woods, appointed parliamentary secretary to the Health Minister.

He abruptly resigned from parliament in early 1997, saying he needed to spend more time with his family.

It turned out he had been having an affair with a young Liberal staff member and claiming $140 a night allowance for 23 nights in her Sydney apartment.

He was handed an 18-month suspended jail sentence.

The first to go was Assistant Treasurer Jim Short who resigned from the ministry for inadvertently misleading the Senate about a conflict of interest, in relation to his granting a banking licence to a subsidiary of a bank in which he held shares.

He was followed by Senator Brian Gibson, parliamentary secretary to the treasurer, for granting futures market access to a company in which he held shares.

Then came Senator Woods and WA MP Geoff Prosser, the minister for small business and consumer affairs who resigned for a perceived conflicts of interest over his continued private business activities.

The next three - Minister for Administrative Services David Jull, Transport Minister John Sharpe and Science and Technology Minister Peter McGauran - were all high flyers felled over travel claims.

Why so many scalps in such a short time?

In opposition John Howard had energetically attacked some Keating Labor government ministers, particularly powerbroker Graham Richardson.

He came to office promising higher standards of ministerial conduct in government, instituting a code of conduct for his ministers and explicitly linking ministerial conduct to his leadership.

That meant even inadvertent breaches, which once might have been overlooked, were fair game to an increasingly energised opposition. Mr Sharpe had actually repaid $9000 in excess travel claims.

But he didn't disclose that and neither did Mr Jull, the responsible minister. Both were told to go.

3 min read
Published 1 January 2019 at 12:14am
Source: AAP