House debates

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Prime Minister; Deputy Prime Minister; Minister for Foreign Affairs

Censure Motion

3:23 pm

Photo of John HowardJohn Howard (Bennelong, Liberal Party, Prime Minister) Share this | Hansard source

And he did, as the foreign minister rightly interjects. For almost a year, vast resources of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were devoted to meeting the requirements of this commission. There are many people on both sides of politics who know and respect the legal reputation of Mr Cole. Even the Leader of the Opposition acknowledges that he is a person of ability and somebody with great forensic skills. Mr Cole would be the last man in Australia to leave a stone unturned in doing his duty by the Australian people. His reputation is involved in this, as well as the reputation of ministers and—I put it to the parliament—the reputation of the two men who are sitting opposite me on the opposition front benches. All of our reputations are involved in this.

The last thing Mr Cole was going to do was be involved in any kind of slipshod work or any kind of cover-up. He asked all the questions and, in the end, he required my appearance, the appearance of the foreign minister and the appearance of the Deputy Prime Minister. It is a serious issue to go to a commission of inquiry as Prime Minister or minister and give evidence under oath. It is something you take seriously. You do your homework. You make sure that everything you say is absolutely correct. Yet, after all of that examination and after having looked at everything that DFAT had done—and DFAT was the operative department—and after having looked at everything that my colleagues had done, he said that there was absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing. That is the reality of this situation.

I know this commission of inquiry report is an intense disappointment to those who sit opposite. After all, you have accused me and my colleagues of lying, you have accused us of covering up and you have accused us of corruption. There is no mucking about: they accused us of dishonesty, of a cover-up and of corruption. Those are pretty serious charges. I have made some serious allegations in this parliament in 32 years, but I have normally had a bit more evidence before I have made charges of that degree of seriousness against people who have tried to do the right thing according to their own political philosophy. A bit of strong political combat is fair enough, but the Leader of the Opposition wound himself up in confected outrage and said that the Minister for Foreign Affairs was corrupt, that I was corrupt and that the Deputy Prime Minister was corrupt. He might say we are wrong, he might say we are misguided, he might say we are foolish, he might say we are invincibly ignorant, but in making those kinds of allegations without a skerrick of evidence—not a scintilla of evidence, to borrow a phrase from an earlier inquiry—he engaged in a farrago of falsehoods, to borrow a phrase from yet another earlier inquiry, in relation to the behaviour of me and my ministers.

It gets worse than that for the Leader of the Opposition. In paragraph 14 of his landmark statement—and it is a landmark statement in the saga of this inquiry—Mr Cole said:

Accordingly, if, during the course of my inquiry, it appears to me that there might have been a breach of any Commonwealth, State or Territory law by the Commonwealth or any officer—

and for ‘officer’ read ‘including minister’—

of the Commonwealth related to the subject matter of the terms of reference, I will approach the Attorney-General seeking a widening of the terms of reference to permit me to make such a finding.

He did not seek a widening of the terms of reference. Because, despite the 76 days of hearings, despite the millions of words, the thousands upon thousands of documents, the numerous statements, the numerous interviews—despite all of that—there was no evidence that we had broken the law. Isn’t there something rather odd? Here you have somebody accusing us of corruption, of dishonesty, of lying, of gross negligence, of all of these other things, yet the commissioner does not ask for an extension of the terms of reference. The truth is that this was an inquiry of remarkable transparency.

I would remind the parliament that a decision was taken to establish this inquiry within days of the government receiving the Volcker report. We are the only government around the world that has had an inquiry of this nature. We knew when we established this inquiry that it would go on for a long time. We accepted that at the end of day it might require the appearance of me and of ministers. And we know that, in relation to all of these inquiries, where it ultimately runs to, you know not. We were prepared to accept the consequences of that not because we wanted to cover up but in the name of transparency.

In this entire debate I think the most baseless charge from the opposition is that we have engaged in a cover-up. If we had wanted to cover up, do you know what we would have done? We would have sent this off to some kind of investigation by the Australian Federal Police—not that they would not do their job correctly, but knowing full well that they would not have the inquisitorial power or tribunal in order to get to the bottom of this.

What blew AWB open was the fact that the commission could subpoena the production of documents. Once they got inside AWB, the game was up. They got inside AWB and they found the documentary trail of deception and deceit. That is what blew the lid off this. Unless you had had an inquiry with the powers of a royal commission, that would never have happened.

Let me say to the Leader of the Opposition and to the member for Griffith that if we had wanted to cover up we would never have had an inquiry. I knew from day one that, if you had an inquiry with the powers of a royal commissioner, that royal commissioner would demand the production of documents. Once you have got your hands on the documents, you have got your hands on the truth and on the real story. I knew that was going to happen, but I wanted the real story to come out. I wanted to know what had happened, because I had believed that this company had been a reputable company. I had believed that—I do not mind admitting it—and so had many of my colleagues.

I remember very vividly early in 2005 that, when I was presented with advice from my department and from the Australian consul-general in New York that AWB was being less than cooperative in relation to the Volcker inquiry, alarm bells started to ring. I wrote on the minute: ‘There must be complete transparency and cooperation.’ For the first time I began to entertain a real belief that this company had behaved improperly. I cannot deny that prior to that I made certain remarks about it. Indeed, as Cole himself has found, one of the reasons why the company was able to get away with what it did was its pattern of deceit built upon a reputation for integrity and trust.

With all of this nonsense about a cover-up, you have only to sit for a moment and understand the way an inquiry of this nature operates and the powers it has to realise that once we established that inquiry we were bound to see the whole thing busted open. If you had wanted to have a cover-up, you would never have had an inquiry. We would have been like every other government around the world—I am not saying they are covering up—in not having an inquiry.

So this pathetic, confected attempt by the Leader of the Opposition to suggest that in some way it is a betrayal of our armed forces, it is a betrayal of this and it is a betrayal of that is not supported by any of the evidence that has been put forward. The greatest evidence of our bona fides was the establishment of the inquiry. Once you establish inquiries such as this, you know not where it will ultimately lead. That is precisely what had happened. It went down every path available to it.


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