House debates

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Prime Minister; Deputy Prime Minister; Minister for Foreign Affairs

Censure Motion

3:38 pm

Photo of Kevin RuddKevin Rudd (Griffith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and International Security) Share this | Hansard source

This parliament on many occasions has seen this Prime Minister full of self-righteousness, full of mock indignation, full of arrogance and full of self-satisfaction, but on the key question of answering the charge which has been put to him today—which is that this government was negligent in its discharge of its national security responsibilities—we have had not a single answer. In response to the substantive charge that this government engaged in a systematic cover-up concerning its negligence on national security, we have had not a single substantive answer worthy of reflection. On the other substantive charge in this censure motion, as the Prime Minister escapes from the chamber—which is that this has been at great cost to this country’s hardworking wheat farmers and our economy more generally—we have had not a single substantive answer. They are the three charges contained in this censure motion and we have had not a single substantive answer. In fact, overnight the Prime Minister was saying that we the opposition owe this government an apology. I find this extraordinary.

I have this question for the Minister for Foreign Affairs before he takes the dispatch box: who is going to apologise to Australia’s hardworking wheat farmers? Half a billion dollars has gone down the chute in terms of lost contracts in Iraq. Who is going to apologise to all the Australian companies whose reputation has now been traduced by this? Who is going to apologise to the thousands of our troops who have served in Iraq in the most difficult and dangerous operational environment? Today the Prime Minister was ducking and weaving around the truth, saying that the money sent to Iraq through the AWB was not used to buy weapons. My question to the Prime Minister—which the foreign minister will soon answer for him—is: who will apologise to the people who have suffered real harm here? Our wheat farmers, the rest of corporate Australia, this nation’s entire international standing and our troops in the field have been harmed.

I think this shows the extent to which this Prime Minister is no longer in touch with the Australian people and what they think about this level of arrogance from the dispatch box today. If you listened carefully to the Prime Minister’s defence, you would know that it rested in large part on a rendition of the terms of reference. We have heard this time and time again in this chamber. It is time to bring this argument to its conclusion. The Prime Minister today said that Commissioner Cole in February this year issued a statement concerning his terms of reference. Commissioner Cole said at, I think, paragraph 12 of the document that if he needed extra powers he would write to the government and get them.

What the Prime Minister has never admitted at this dispatch box is that the extra powers the commissioner could have asked of the government would have related only to matters relating to the criminality of the AWB and, as a consequence of that, possible criminality on the part of ministers and officials. When that document was released by the Cole commission in February 2006, I wrote to Commissioner Cole. I said: ‘Commissioner, you put out a statement about your terms of reference. You have asked for submissions—here is one. Will you add to your terms of reference a head of power which enables you to make determinations about whether ministers—in particular, the foreign minister—did their job? Will you add a term of reference, a head of power, which would enable you as commissioner to determine whether this minister did all that was reasonable and fair within his portfolio to uphold Australia’s obligations under UN sanctions against Iraq? Under the Australian Customs regulations, this minister—and nobody else—is the minister responsible.’

What was the gaping hole in Commissioner Cole’s terms of reference? It was that Commissioner Cole had no head of power whatsoever to determine whether the minister or the department did their job in that respect. So I wrote to the commissioner and said, ‘Commissioner, will you request that additional power?’ Through his office, he wrote back to me not more than a week or two later. What he said to me was highly instructive. He said: ‘Mr Rudd, those additional powers represent such a huge expansion of my existing powers that I could not possibly ask for that. The only way I could be given those powers is if the government gave them to me of its own accord.’ That is what he said in black and white. He said he could only request an extension of powers in relation to his current substantive terms of reference, which only went to matters of criminality.

So there you have it in black and white from the commissioner. It was a royal commission established with narrow powers to look, in the first instance, purely at questions of criminality on the part of the AWB and, secondly and relatedly, at whether there was any associated criminality on the part of ministers or any other representative of the Commonwealth. On the question of ministers’ administrative responsibility under Australia’s domestic administrative law—the Customs regulations—there was not a single head of power. When I asked the commissioner to add that power, he said: ‘It’s not for me to ask, sonny Jim; it’s only for them to give. I don’t set the rules here.’

We have heard speeches overnight from various ministers in mock self-righteousness, indignation and all the rest of it saying that we should accept the umpire’s decision. I think the trade minister said that overnight. Our complaint is not with the umpire; our complaint is with the man who set the rules for the match—the Prime Minister. He set the rules. He set them so narrow and so tight that it became inevitable that these ministers would get a tick at the end of the day—so limited was the test that they had to pass. From this dispatch box, the Leader of the Opposition and I have said this repeatedly for nearly a year. They think that it is some marvellous revelation that they get off scot-free from a rorted set of terms of reference which were rorted from day one. The complaint is not against the umpire; the complaint is against the man who set the rules for the game within which the umpire operated, the man who set the rules for the match—and that is the Prime Minister himself. That is the core summary of the inherent flaw, failing and contradiction in the Prime Minister’s defence today concerning the terms of reference.

The Prime Minister also took umbrage in his response to the Leader of the Opposition’s censure motion when he said that we had had the audacity to accuse these ministers of not telling the truth, of lying. We had repeated statements from the Prime Minister and the foreign minister about a range of things in the course of the events of this year which were simply not true. The Prime Minister stood up on one occasion and said all documents had been provided to the Cole commission of inquiry. Five days later, as I recollect, the Cole commission of inquiry issued subpoenas to every department in town to collect a whole new batch of documents. That is why I said this Prime Minister had lied. I do not recant from that one bit. It was technically accurate.

We had the foreign minister and others claiming that they had fully cooperated with the Volcker inquiry, the one set up with by the UN in the first place. It is important to reflect on that in some detail as well. Guess what happened with Volcker? We found out during the course of this year that this minister had taken a submission from his department to the effect that no classified documents would be given by the government to Volcker and that no official would be made available to Volcker—so much so that Mr Volcker met our permanent representative in New York about a year into the inquiry and said, ‘You guys are not cooperating with the inquiry. Get your act together.’ That is when this Prime Minister, finally having been outed by that revelation from Mr Volcker, made his handwritten annotation to public service departments: ‘There shall now be full cooperation with Volcker.’ For a year they tried to subvert the Volcker inquiry, and the documentary evidence of that is clear. So, on this question of how unfair it is for us to say that this mob have been short on the truth in what they have said, I simply put that forward as exhibit B. They said that they had fully cooperated with Volcker; we found out from the documentary record that they did absolutely nothing of the sort.

The final element on which this Prime Minister was so indignant today relates to what I have just said, but it is a broader point as well. He asked how we could possibly accuse this government, from whom righteousness beams forth from their souls. How could we possibly accuse this government of a cover-up? Let us leave the history to one side. Let us leave aside the ‘children overboard’ affair and everything we have got to know about the viscera of this government—understanding how they actually work, how they think and how they feel. ‘Here is a problem; here is a piece of truth—where is a box to hide it in now?’ That is in fact their standard modus operandi. If you go to the facts of this in terms of a cover-up, first of all there is the issue of the Volcker inquiry; secondly, there is the issue of the US Senate inquiry, the Coleman inquiry, and hurriedly despatching officials to Washington on the eve of the Australian national elections in October 2004 to shut that inquiry down. Do you know why? Because they did not want it to come out a month before the Australian election. They did not want to cruel the Iraq pitch for themselves.

But there is a third point when it comes to a cover-up—the first is Volcker and the second is the Coleman inquiry—that is, the terms of reference of the Cole inquiry itself. We have addressed that in some detail in our response on this censure. The Prime Minister and the foreign minister were disturbed today by the question asked by the Leader of the Opposition on a cover-up. There is one very interesting thing contained in this report—I think it is in volume 4. It says that as of June 2004 this mob over here, that is the minister’s department, ‘knew’—and these are not my words; these are the commissioner’s words—that the AWB had engaged a Jordanian company and that they were aware that that Jordanian company could well have been providing money to Saddam’s regime. That is Commissioner Cole’s conclusion: that as of June 2004 this mob over here—that is, the department of foreign affairs—actually knew that.

The point of the opposition leader’s question today was about how is it, then, that three months after that this minister sends his department to the Americans in Washington and says there is absolutely no foundation to any accusation in America that the AWB was providing kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime. Minister, it does not add up. Mr Cole has now said that in June 2004 your department knew. And three months later you went in and deliberately deceived the Americans. That is what you did. I have to say that that was done not just on one occasion by the acting ambassador in Washington but also on a second occasion by Ambassador Thorley—both occasions being immediately prior to the election. So when they stand here with mock self-indignation, mock self-righteousness, and say, ‘How could you accuse us of a cover-up?’, think of these terms of reference, think of Volcker and think of how they have handled this US Senate inquiry.

The Leader of the Opposition got it absolutely right today in nailing precisely what this government’s ultimate defence on Cole is. Their defence is threefold. It is a defence based on ignorance, a defence based on incompetence and a defence based on negligence. That is what they say: ‘You cannot blame us for anything which happened in the five years that this scandal ran because we were ignorant, we were incompetent and we were negligent.’ That is their defence.

Do you know why they cannot take the opposite view? Because if they said they were actually doing their job, they would have known something about what went on. They feared that intensely, because that would land them in the dock with the AWB, complicit in the actions between the AWB and Saddam Hussein’s regime. These are the only two options available to them.

So their defence is: ‘We are a government which is ignorant, a government which is negligent and a government which is incompetent.’ Their strategy is this, when it comes to this country’s national security: eyes wide shut. The member for Bendigo mentioned this to me this morning; it is three words: eyes wide shut. That is a terrific defence if you are interested in getting yourself off the hook in a courtroom, but it is a lousy strategy if you are interested in this country’s national security. The Australian people want eyes wide open, not eyes wide shut. But this government concluded that they needed, absolutely, eyes wide shut in order to get through the rigours of the Cole inquiry. So what you saw last night was a popping of the champagne corks, a celebration of their collective negligence, incompetence and ignorance, because that constitutes the essence of their defence against the charges made against them.

This has been a long debate. It has run for more than a year since we first asked questions at this dispatch box. But this government stand censured for three things. They stand censured because they have been found, in five volumes, to be grossly negligent in discharging their national security obligations. They have been found to have engaged in three exercises of cover-up concerning their negligence because they did not want that to become known to the Australian people. And they have been found to have delivered this negligence at a profound cost to our wheat farmers, our economy, and our general corporate sector. But, overall, what has suffered here is the doctrine of ministerial accountability, because today this minister refused to accept even one jot of responsibility for the worst corruption scandal in Australia’s history. (Time expired)


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