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Opposition calls on Prime Minister to sack Defence Minister.

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Minister for Defence, Joel Fitzgibbon, confessed today that he has no idea about the true extent of the debacle involving the pay of our SAS soldiers in Afghanistan.

His announcement that the Rudd Government has been forced to call in private auditors to sort out this mess is a blatant admission of his own incompetence.

In October last year, Joel Fitzgibbon said he would fix the problem. He did not.

When raised again in Parliament last week, he insisted again it had all been fixed.

Today, Mr Fitzgibbon has thrown up his hands in despair, and acknowledged that he has no idea what the facts are.

These are Australia’s elite fighting men. They are sent into the most dangerous part of the world to fight the most ruthless enemy, the Taliban, and their pay has been in a state of disarray for months.

Mr Fitzgibbon does not know whether the soldiers have been properly paid or not. He does not know how much they have been underpaid. He does not know how much has been claimed back. He does not know how many soldiers are involved.

Mr Fitzgibbon is clueless. That he has been forced to engage auditors to investigate the scandal five months after it was first raised by the Federal Opposition is nothing short of a national disgrace.

This pay debacle does not involve large numbers of men. It does not involve huge amounts of money relative to the Defence Department budget. If an outside audit is necessary, why was this not undertaken last year when the Opposition first brought the issue to his attention?

When we send our troops into the frontline, they have to know that they have a Government and a Minister for Defence who is solidly behind them. They have to know that that minister will move mountains to sort out any problems they have.

Yet, today, whether through incompetence, indifference, or laziness, we have a situation where we have our finest soldiers on the frontline and a Minister leaving their families on the breadline.

What this reveals is a complete collapse in confidence between the Minister and the Defence Department. It also reveals a Minister totally out of his depth.

Mr Rudd should put him out of his misery and appoint somebody competent as Minister for Defence. If Joel Fitzgibbon is not prepared to do the right thing and resign, then Mr Rudd should sack him.

2 March 2009