Thursday, 9 February 2006
Deputy Prime Minister; Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; Minister for Transport and Regional Services
I seek leave to move the following motion:
That this House censure the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and the Minister for Transport and Regional Services for:
- concealing from the Parliament the full extent of their knowledge of the breaches by AWB Limited of the United Nations Oil for Food Program; and
- their failure to prevent AWB from making payments totalling $300 million to the Saddam Regime through that program for the purchase of weapons and the funding of suicide bombers.
Leave not granted.
That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent the Leader of the Opposition moving forthwith: That this House censure the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and the Minister for Transport and Regional Services for:
- concealing from the Parliament the full extent of their knowledge of the breaches by AWB Limited of the United Nations Oil for Food Program; and
- their failure to prevent AWB from making payments totalling $300 million to the Saddam regime through that program for the purchase of weapons and the funding of suicide bombers.
This is a massive scandal and yet they will not permit a censure motion on it. We had the Minister for Foreign Affairs desperately trying to clean up for his National Party colleagues here with his answer. He stood up in this place and said that the money that went to Saddam Hussein corruptly under this program was not used for the insurgency, for weapons or for the payment of suicide bombers. He said that, despite the fact that the Coalition Provisional Authority advised him that that was a serious possibility. That is point 1.
Point 2: he said that despite the fact that the Iraq Survey Group, run by the CIA and with many Australian participants, found exactly the same thing. You should hang your heads in shame on this. You have been desperate all week to drag the Cole commission down over yourselves like some sort of cupola over a bunker and to say that the blame lies here with the AWB types and nowhere else. Gradually, slowly, kicking and screaming, you brought your own people into it, but you have still not put them into it fully.
The simple fact of the matter is that the National Party has used this program to satisfy its constituency and, at the same time as using this program to satisfy its constituency, it has trashed the reputation of this nation, has damaged our ally and has trashed the long-term viability of the way in which we do wheat sales in this country—all of it sitting on your desks.
It is obviously very difficult for the media to understand the significance of what was put down yesterday. I understand that; there is so much detail in this program that it is always difficult to see the wood for the trees. When you have one piece of documentation after another pouring out—hints, whispers, indications, possibilities of some degree of knowledge of what was going on, you forget the fundamentals of it.
The fundamentals of it are that you have one agency reporting to your ministry of agriculture. It was not, as you deceitfully told parliament last year, that there were no matters related to transport or the detail of contracts, but in fact a great deal of detail. There was a considerable amount of detail when they looked at those 17 contracts and detail when they looked at others. From 1999 onwards, they were persistently examining, piece by piece, each of those contracts for the structure of the payments that were being made. As a result of that, they should have been sending one message of warning after another to you. You chose to turn a blind eye to those messages.
It was one message of warning after another to ministers. The simple fact of the matter is that this government turned a blind eye to them. In the course of this week, there has been a desperate effort by this government to convince people that this matter is all too hard to be considered by the parliament and that it should be concluded only at the Cole royal commission. This is despite the fact that vast elements of this matter will never be considered by the Cole commission and that the commission now does not have the power to make recommendations on important elements of it. That is the critical thing: it does not have the power to make recommendations.
As things stand at this moment, Commissioner Cole does not have the power to recommend criminal action against any public servant, minister or public official. If he says that he has asked for it, why don’t you give him the power now? That is the point. The government are resisting at every trench line the opportunity to get in there and look at what they are doing. That is one thing that the Cole commission is not looking at.
I will tell you another thing that the Cole commission is not looking at. It is not looking at how Saddam spent this money. It is not looking at where the money went or how it was utilised. Ministers in this place are honour bound to the people of this country and to our allies to get an understanding of exactly where this money went and how it was utilised.
Australian soldiers are in Iraq. Those Australian soldiers are not facing broomsticks. Those Australian soldiers are facing a substantial poultice of weaponry, which thankfully has not been turned on them but on a daily basis is massively turned on their American allies and on friends of their American allies who are now trying to run the Iraqi regime. This is a massive blot on the government’s reputation that will not be accounted for by Cole.
When the Deputy Prime Minister stood up here and said, as he did, that there was no evidence that the Australian resources had been utilised for the acquisition of weapons and the support of efforts to continue research weapons of mass destruction, I do not know why the foreign minister got up and backed him about that. The Iraqi Survey Group found evidence that Saddam had indeed pursued research on weapons of mass destruction. The issue in relation to weapons of mass destruction, which he conveniently skates over, is whether or not they existed and were deployed. The Iraqi Survey Group found that they did not exist. They were not deployed but they were researched. Where did the resources come from to research them? According to the CIA and the Iraqi Survey Group, they came from the oil for food program. That is the point.
There is always a desire in this place to let a government off the hook and say: ‘They’re all good chaps, good chums. Let’s all be a bit bipartisan. Let the government proceed on a day-to-day basis.’ But this House is the house of accountability. This House is where we air these problems. None of these issues will be aired at the Cole royal commission. How could they be? How could you set Cole down the track of trying to find out what happened to various bank accounts in Jordan or various bank accounts in Iraq? This government could.
There is no problem for them to start to seek to find where those resources went and whether or not any of them had been utilised or could have been potentially utilised in the number of shooting incidents involving Australian military personnel in Baghdad. While, thankfully, in Al Muthanna province no shots have been fired at our personnel that hit home, in the case of Baghdad there have been. Fortunately, there have been no deaths, but there have been shots fired. Those attacks were mounted by the insurgency, by the leftovers of the Fedayeen, who were from the regulars defending Saddam’s regime at the time of the invasion by the United States and allies of Iraq several years ago. They were funded virtually exclusively out of the oil for food program.
These are the central issues which the government must answer, which they are absolutely determined not to answer but are absolutely determined to distract the press with. For once in the government’s 10 long years in office, the press are starting to focus on them and hold them to account—and yesterday something came out. No, it was not a smoking gun. This morning I said that it was another hole in the bucket of the government’s credibility and that it indicated that there was now a regular basis of report into the ministry of agriculture on the detail of the AWB contracts. If you were not interested in turning a blind eye, if you were not being recklessly negligent, you might say: ‘This is a bit much, really. We ought to look at it a bit harder. We ought to give this a bit more detailed consideration.’ There was one report after another. They will not table those reports in this place, and I will lay you London to a brick they will not table them at the Cole commission either. But maybe after having raised it in this place today, they will get them. But we should get them in this place— (Time expired)
Yesterday, about this time, the honourable member for Corio rushed breathlessly to the press gallery to tell them all he had found the smoking gun: he had the evidence that would bring the government down. By this morning, the Leader of the Opposition had brought him down by making it clear he did not have a smoking gun, and he did not have a smoking gun because the comments by the member for Corio were absolutely empty. The reality is that there have been no messages of warning delivered to ministers for agriculture over the years about this particular issue.
Indeed, the messages that came from the Wheat Export Authority, from Tim Besley—a very respected businessman who knows a good deal about commercial activities—to the minister of the day were unambiguously that they had investigated the AWB and had found nothing untoward. No minister was given advice by the Wheat Export Authority which would suggest that there were matters of concern that needed to be investigated further. The Wheat Export Authority had access to all of the documents that the AWB had at its disposal. They had the opportunity to move through the office at will and find what they wanted.
Indeed, after the Wheat Export Authority had made a decision that they wanted to investigate some of the allegations that had been made in Canada and the United States about kickbacks in relation to Iraqi trade, they took it upon themselves to undertake this investigation. They analysed a whole stack of records. They attended the AWB offices. They examined contracts, certification of export details, authorisation letters from the UN and they verified that those details were consistent with information that had previously been provided and obtained by the WEA.
The WEA staff examined 17 out of 41 sales contracts for the sale of wheat to Iraq under the UN oil for food program, so it was a pretty thorough examination and representation. Their conclusion was there was nothing untoward. They found nothing untoward. The Leader of the Opposition is trying to propound some kind of a theory that the minister should have said to the chairman of the WEA, a distinguished businessman with very substantial commercial credentials—
He should have said, ‘You’ve got it all wrong. I know more than you. The statutory body charged with dealing with these sorts of things did not know what it was doing and the minister should have known more.’
This is a ridiculous and preposterous proposition that the Leader of the Opposition is proposing. A number of issues of concern were raised by the WEA with the AWB and the AWB provided answers. The WEA asked why the prices were higher for transport in Iraq than had been the case in, say, western New South Wales. It is not very surprising that the cost would be higher for transport in a war torn country. As indicated in the answer that Mr Besley has provided, the reality is that it was part of the contract that they had to deliver this wheat from the port, upcountry, and they did not get paid until it was actually delivered to the customer. So this land transport element was a key part of the delivery of the contract.
The Leader of the Opposition has indicated that the government has not tabled in parliament the WEA confidential report to the minister. There is a very good reason for that: the legislation specifically precludes it. The legislation protects the confidentiality of this report.
Go and seek your own legal advice. I certainly have, and the legal advice is that this report cannot be made public and that is specifically stated in the legislation. However, if the Leader of the Opposition wants to nominate somebody of interest to him to read the confidential report—provided you are prepared to respect the confidentiality of the commercial elements that might disadvantage Australian farmers if they were to be released—the government is prepared to provide you with that kind of an opportunity. But let me assure you that the statements publicly made by Mr Tim Besley about the content of those confidential reports and their examination in relation to the Iraq contracts are consistent with what is in the report. I remind you again: Tim Besley said, ‘There’s nothing—
Mr Speaker, what Mr Besley has said is that there is nothing untoward that emerged from WEA’s checks. I think he went much further in his statement today in the Australian where he said:
… information given to the minister contained no evidence of wrongdoing. Instead, the minister was told the WEA had given AWB a “clean bill of health”.
Let me say that is entirely consistent with my understanding and my reading of the reports that were presented to the minister. The Leader of the Opposition also made the quite extraordinary comment that the minister was receiving daily reports, or very regular reports, on the activities of the AWB. This was an annual report provided only once every year on the previous pool’s activities. However, there was a second report, a report that was made publicly available to every wheat grower in Australia. It was also available to anybody else, and is still available to anybody who would choose to look at it. I presume the opposition, since they claim they have been trawling through all the documents, have actually had a look at that public document. It is publicly available. They will note that that public document also raises no reservations whatsoever about the Iraqi contracts that should have caused alarm to either the minister or anybody else reading it. The publicly produced documents by the WEA clear the AWB of any wrongdoing, or certainly do not cover any issues that would have raised concern. The confidential report, which deals with this issue, also raises no issues which would be of concern to a competent minister.
The reality is that this government has cooperated fully with the Cole committee of inquiry. In this regard the Leader of the Opposition made another completely inaccurate statement. He said that the Cole inquiry did not have access to the confidential report. That is wrong. The Cole inquiry not only has access to the 2003-04 report to the minister for agriculture, which is the one that deals with these sorts of issues, but it also has board minutes, secretariat records, working papers and correspondence relating to WEA and AWB. It has all been provided to the Cole commission by the WEA.
Whatever the Cole commission wants in relation to this issue, it most certainly has access to. There are, as I mentioned to you, confidentiality provisions within the act and, needless to say, the Cole inquiry will need to consider the act in examining what bits can be made public. But certainly the issues in relation to the Iraq study, in my view, contain no commercial-in-confidence matters. I have no objection personally, and I suspect also that no-one in the government has any objection, to the Leader of the Opposition or a person that he might nominate having a look at those particular sections or, for that matter, the whole report, so long as he is prepared to acknowledge that there are some confidential issues that I would expect him to respect.
The reality is that this censure motion has no substance whatsoever. The Minister for Trade, the current Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and I, as the minister for agriculture for about six years, have acted completely responsibly in these matters. There was no occasion when the WEA brought to the minister’s attention any concerns at all about the Iraq contracts or the arrangements for trucking or other matters in Iraq. In fact they said precisely the opposite: they had given the AWB a clean bill of health. On that basis, the government’s response has been entirely appropriate.
There are allegations that are being made. Again, we have acted very openly and completely in this issue by setting up a rigorous commission of inquiry under Cole, a man noted for looking under every stone, and we have been prepared to make every piece of information available that he could possibly want. It is appropriate that that inquiry run its course. It will have access to the right information, and I have every confidence it will exonerate the government in its findings because, frankly, all ministers have acted responsibly in this matter.
Minister Truss, incompetence and negligence are simply no defence in this matter. There is one simple proposition at the heart of this whole scandal: if the government did not know of the kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime and if its officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry had no knowledge of the matters relating to this scandal, why don’t you simply open up the terms of reference of the Cole inquiry so that they can come before it and you can come before it to tell what you know—
The scandal is of such proportions that there is simply no credible defence for the government in the matter. The government claims that it knew nothing of the kickbacks in face of the evidence that we now know was presented to it over several years. On that basis alone, it is culpable on a grand scale. If it did know of the kickbacks and failed to act on that information, it is culpable on an infinitely greater scale. Either way, it stands condemned for its failure to act on this matter—its failure to investigate AWB’s involvement in the payment of kickbacks to the Iraqi regime.
The minister comes to the table and tells this House that the Wheat Export Authority, headed by a National Party mate—or headed by a mate—did not give any advice to him or other ministers on the kickbacks that had been paid. I say to the minister: why didn’t you act on these warnings? In June 1999 the Iraqi Grains Board invites AWB to respond to a new tender that includes a new price term: ‘CIF free in truck to all governorates’. On 14 July AWB enters three contracts with the Iraqi Grains Board under the oil for food program—the first AWB contracts to incorporate the new contractual terms for inland transport. You were the minister. The minister claims he did not know of these particular contracts and the changed circumstance.
On 21 December 1999 the Canadian government tells the UN about a proposed contract where Iraq is demanding a payment of $700,000 to a Jordanian bank account to cover inland transport costs. The Canadians tell the UN that they understand that Australia has already entered into this kind of contract—and the minister and the government did not know about it. On 2 January the UN raises concerns with Australia’s permanent mission to the UN about issues of irregular payments to the Iraq regime—and the minister claims that he knew nothing about it. On 7 March 2001 the New York Times carries an article on abuse of the oil for food campaign, including bogus inland transport charges—and the minister claims to this House that he and the government knew nothing about it. In May 2002 the US General Accounting Office presents a report on weapons of mass destruction and gives details of the rorting of the oil for food program by the addition of surcharges on contracts. The minister has a department advising him on these matters, and he comes into this House claiming he had no knowledge of it. On 22 October 2003 US Senator Tom Daschle writes to President Bush to ask him to investigate allegations that Australia sold wheat to Iraq at inflated prices which incorporated the inland transport costs—and the minister claims today he knew nothing about it.
Ignorance, incompetence and negligence are no excuse for the worst scandal that Australia has seen, which is now damaging Australia’s great wheat industry, and the responsibility lies at the feet of Howard government ministers.
That the motion (That the motion () be agreed to.