Australian minister resigns over unofficial China trip, paving way for Cabinet reshuffle

Mr Turnbull said that Human Services Minister Stuart Robert had attended a meeting during an unofficial China trip.
Mr Turnbull said that Human Services Minister Stuart Robert had attended a meeting during an unofficial China trip.PHOTO: EPA

CANBERRA (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull accepted the resignation on Friday (Feb 12) of a Cabinet minister who admitted he had attended a contract signing between China's Minmetals and an Australian company with which he had financial links.

The move ends a tumultuous week for Mr Turnbull's conservative government after two other ministers quit a day earlier in unrelated circumstances, paving the way for a Cabinet reshuffle months before a general election is due.

Mr Turnbull said a government investigation found that Human Services Minister Stuart Robert had attended a meeting between unlisted Australian miner Nimrod Resources and Minmetals during an unofficial trip to Beijing in 2014.

Mr Turnbull said in a statement Mr Stuart had offered his resignation after becoming aware that he held shares in another company, Metallum Holdings, which had an unspecified interest in Nimrod Resources.

"Mr Robert recognised that this connection would create the impression that at the time he went to Beijing he had something personally to gain from the Nimrod Resources project," he said.

Mr Turnbull's government has been dogged by scandals since he became leader after a party-room coup in September, distracting him from efforts to unite his party after the ouster of former leader Tony Abbott. Two other ministers lost their jobs in unrelated scandals in December.

A senior Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade official told a Senate hearing on Thursday the department was not aware of Mr Robert's trip and that Chinese officials at the meeting believed he was there in an official capacity. The Labour opposition said Mr Robert breached protocol through a conflict of interest.

While the probe into Mr Robert's trip concluded the minister acted inconsistently with ministerial standards, the investigator accepted that Mr Robert "may not have intended to do so", Mr Turnbull said.

The premier must announce a new ministry just five months after winning the leadership and ahead of elections later this year.

The infrastructure portfolio is also vacant after Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss announced he was retiring from the role. Mr Truss resigned as leader of junior coalition partner the Nationals on Thursday, with Mr Barnaby Joyce being promoted to lead the party and also assuming the role of deputy prime minister. 

Trade Minister Andrew Robb has also announced his intention to retire at the election, due this year.