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Australia defence minister in secret probe

world Updated: Mar 26, 2009 11:30 IST

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Australia's defence minister was secretly investigated by his own department over a friendship with a Chinese-born woman, with military spies called in to access his computers, a newspaper reported on Thursday.

Defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon was investigated over ties to wealthy Chinese-born Sydney businesswoman Helen Liu, 48, who has past financial links with Beijing, The Age newspaper said.

In the course of the investigation, an official from the secretive Defence Signals Directorate accessed Fitzgibbon's office computer systems and found Liu's banking details, the paper said. Fitzgibbon rents a home from her family in Canberra.

Fitzgibbon's office declined to comment on the report.

The defence department said its chief, Nick Warner, and military commander air chief marshal Angus Houston have ordered an inquiry.

The investigation could embarrass prime minister Kevin Rudd and called into question the behaviour of some of the country's most sensitive security agencies, former defence official and security analyst Alan Behm said.

"It is not for a public service department to unilaterally undertake a review of its own minister or of the government. When that starts to happen, then we begin to erode fundamentally the principles by which we govern ourselves," Behm told state radio.

"If true, it is a most extraordinary development."

The minister's father, former national lawmaker Eric Fitzgibbon, said his family had known Liu's family for 16 years.
"The relationship, the friendship, goes back a long way and to suggest that there's some danger to Australian defence from me or Joel to be associated with the Liu family is just plainly ridiculous," he said on state radio.

Liu has been a financial supporter of the ruling Labor Party in New South Wales state for a decade, with two of her former property development companies contributing about A$90,000 ($62,630) to its coffers.

Australian Securities and Investment Commission documents showed several of her deregistered Australian firms had Chinese government-owned enterprises as shareholders, the report said.

($1=1.437 Australian dollar)