Monday, 13 February 2006
I seek leave to move the following motion:
That this House censure the government for continuing the cover-up of its role in the $300 million wheat for weapons scandal, its arrogance and abuse of power in directing public servants not to answer any questions about the scandal and its misleading of the parliament about all documents, including electronic files, being provided to the Volcker inquiry.
Leave not granted.
That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent the Leader of the Opposition from moving forthwith:That this House censure the government for continuing the cover-up of its role in the $300 million wheat for weapons scandal, its arrogance and abuse of power in directing public servants not to answer any questions about the scandal and its misleading of the parliament about all documents, including electronic files, being provided to the Volcker inquiry.
It is disgraceful, having shut down the Senate’s capacity to inquire into their malfeasance in relation to the wheat for weapons program, having failed to answer any of the questions we have asked of them in this place, that those opposite should have the hide to refuse a censure motion on this now. This is a cowardly government, a weak government, a government running for cover and using its power. This is an arrogant government, abusing its total power and scrambling to protect itself at all costs. The Prime Minister no longer believes he has to explain himself to the Australian people. This growing arrogance in the government is there because it thinks it is accountable to nobody. Any skerrick of evidence that might implicate the Prime Minister, Mr Vaile, Mr Truss, Mr Downer or, now, Mr Costello in the wheat for weapons scandal is now out of bounds. It is off limits, locked away. What an outrageous abuse of power.
The Prime Minister has corrupted the process to save himself and his guilty ministers. They, in the wheat for weapons scandal, are the guilty party. That is why this government will do anything to run and hide from questions on this scandal. They have arrogantly shut down every avenue of scrutiny available to the Australian people. What do you have to hide, Prime Minister? Australians can only assume that this cover-up that John Howard and his ministers are in means that they are in this scandal up to their necks.
Today, as the scandal breathes uncomfortably hot down their collective necks, this arrogant Prime Minister and his five know-nothing ministers shut down all parliamentary scrutiny. When we asked the Senate leader why he gagged officials, he said: ‘Because we’re in government and you’re not.’ ‘We can ride roughshod over the Australian people and their representatives because we are in government and they are not.’ When we ask the Prime Minister and his ministers serious questions, what do they say? ‘How would I know?’
This morning we had the unprecedented gagging of government officials—the servants of the Australian people now barred from answering questions at Senate estimates committee hearings. To prevent the now daily roll-out of more damaging, incriminating evidence, public servants have been ordered not to answer questions relating to the Cole inquiry. This is an arrogant government engaged in a deliberate, shameless cover-up.
The Prime Minister, in defence of himself, had a proposition back in 1989 that questions were not permitted of officials on a matter going to the cabinet—at that point of time, a limited, discrete area. It was a position that lasted for a short period. This is shutting the Senate out of this debate for the entirety of the Cole royal commission.
Of course, Mr Speaker—to censure this government. The simple fact of the matter is that the Senate’s inability to ask the officials questions was not an inability imposed during the last Cole royal commission. Why? Of course, the government liked that royal commission. It was a royal commission into the unions. Nor was it imposed on them during the HIH royal commission. Why not? Because the government liked the idea that it could duckshove to someone else the blame for its incapacity to properly supervise financial markets.
The government had it all nicely set up. But the Cole royal commission shows all sorts of signs of going rogue on them as one piece of information after another comes before it—and it is why the government should be censured. We see that, for the Cole royal commission, out come the documents. ‘We met with the minister.’ Out comes another document: ‘I had a discussion with the minister.’ They are scared rotten that day by day in the Cole royal commission more and more of these hints of common knowledge inside the government about what was going on in AWB will come out. We get information from unusual sources. The last was a spectacular performance by the Prime Minister’s right-hand man in the Senate, Senator Heffernan, when he got up and said that for 2½ years he had been getting farmers, officials and all sorts of people coming to him to tell him how corrupt the AWB deals were in Iraq. That is what Heffernan used.
The point is this. We know that that information was coming into the government persistently and they turned a blind eye to it. You do not know where the AWB ends and the National Party begins. You simply do not know that. The AWB is the National Party overseas branch as far as its operations are concerned.
What is engaged in here is a disgraceful act of concealment. The Prime Minister has defended himself repeatedly on his limited terms of reference for the Cole commission by saying that Volcker had an opportunity to review all the matters before the government, all the documentation, and that he, Volcker, chose to make no findings on the government—he chose to make no findings on the government, but he made findings in relation to the AWB. That is an absolute lie.
It was an absolute untruth, which is why they should be censured—because that was an absolute untruth. That is one of the many reasons why they should be censured. When we asked whether or not electronic files had been passed to Volcker—wherein would lie the vast bulk of any of the considerations and information that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had upon these matters—‘No’, said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The whole logical edifice that the Prime Minister has built for constraining the Volcker inquiry’s terms of reference collapses on that answer alone. Volcker, despite what the Prime Minister said to the contrary, did not have all the information that was available from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the status of official and ministerial knowledge of this scandal before it broke.
The blind eye was matched with an active act of deception. The picture of scrutiny in this place we have now is this: you have the Cole royal commission with half terms of reference in relation to the government, not able to make findings as to the government’s activities with regard to the administration of its portfolios, not able to make a judgment about the state of knowledge, and making recommendations on that judgment in administrative terms—in terms of what the government did. You have Cole over there, nobbled to at least some degree. And then you have the Senate estimates committee process nobbled—for one reason only: the government has the numbers. The government got the numbers last July, and that means that that process of scrutiny—probably one of the most effective in the democratic world, the Senate estimates process—is now gutted for all time, gutted when it has an effect on where the government stands.
We are left with only one place where questions can be answered. They can be asked and answered here in this chamber. We have seen now for more than a week government evasion after government evasion, government half-truth after government half-truth, government untruth after government untruth in all the questions that we have asked of them. Nobody objectively listening to their answers could believe that the Australian people were being provided with the whole picture on this.
This is a massive scandal. It is not simply a question of the treatment of the opposition. It is a $300 million bribe handed to a person who became an enemy of this country, to be utilised for purposes including the possibility of weapons in hostilities with Australian serving personnel. Any decent government would have wanted to get to the bottom of this.
Any decent government would want to get to the bottom of this properly, unless of course they believed they were culpable. You, Prime Minister, are culpable on this. You have turned a blind eye, and the evidence is now in.
First of all the government rejects this confected motion and the confected outrage of a struggling Leader of the Opposition. The reason we reject this is that not only is the opposition wrong in the assertions it makes—and it makes blind and outrageous assertions about people in the government, including officials, diplomats, government ministers and the Prime Minister, being corrupt and it makes blind and outrageous assertions that we support terrorist attacks in the Palestinian territories in Israel—
and that the Australian government was funding the killing of American soldiers—but the whole of the Labor Party’s attack is built on a totally false premise. If the Labor Party had had its way, Saddam Hussein’s regime would still be in place, the oil for food program would still be going and the corruption would still be there.
Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. You asked the Leader of the Opposition to confine his remarks to the suspension of standing orders. I trust the Minister for Foreign Affairs will be required to do the same.
The reason we reject this motion is that the Labor Party’s argument, amongst other things, is based on a totally false premise. The Labor Party’s premise is that somehow this government was in favour of paying kickbacks to a regime we wanted to get rid of. As if we would!
After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Coalition Provisional Authority came into place. The Coalition Provisional Authority did a number of things. Amongst those things was the beginning of a process of investigating how the oil for food program had been working within the context of Iraq. The point I make is a very clear one: if it had not been for the work of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which we indeed did support, then the Volcker committee would never have been set up. But what the Coalition Provisional Authority did was interview Iraqis and go through the documents of Iraq. It is because of that work that they were able to identify the way kickbacks worked in Iraq.
There were 66 countries’ companies involved in this, including those of Britain, Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand and Canada. A raft of countries were involved in this and none of those kickbacks had been identified by either those governments or the United Nations. This country was far from unique, and those countries did not support kickbacks. That is not an assertion that we would make. The opposition would make that assertion, but we would not. Tony Blair did not support the 14 British companies that paid kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime. Is that the suggestion here? No. They did not. It was the work of the Coalition Provisional Authority that discovered the nature of the corruption which led to the establishment of the Volcker committee. We made it perfectly clear that we would be very happy to not just fully cooperate with but assist the Volcker committee.
We of course gave the Volcker committee documents that would assist them. We have no documents that show that the Australian government knew that the AWB was involved in kickbacks. We do not have those documents. Of course, that is increasingly transparent through the Cole process. Once the Volcker committee had completed its work, the Australian government established the Cole inquiry. Of the 66 countries I mentioned, over 2,000 companies were involved. Yes, the Wheat Board was at least allegedly a big transgressor. But, remember, 85 per cent of the contracts were contracts which involved companies from other countries.
The Labor Party’s assertion is that Tony Blair or President Chirac or Prime Minister Persson of Sweden were not involved in cover-ups but the Australian government was. This is oppositionism at its worst. This is oppositionism at its weakest. Of course, the opposition cannot produce any evidence that the government was somehow backing these kickbacks or had been involved in these kickbacks, because the government was not. The government was not involved in the kickback scheme. It was never the policy of the Australian government. It has never been the policy of this government and, for that matter, I believe going right back to 1901, it has not been the policy of any Australian government to support kickbacks. It is as simple as that.
The policy of the government was to support UN sanctions. The policy of the government was to support the oil for food program. That was the policy of all or nearly all countries in the United Nations.
The opposition interjects that it was the policy of the government to support wheat growers. It was presumably therefore the policy of the opposition to oppose wheat growers. Was it? Oh, no, that is silly. On the argument that the government has put forward, the interjections, therefore, fall.
I will make it absolutely clear: the Australian government did not know that the Australian Wheat Board was paying kickbacks. As it became increasingly apparent through the work of the Coalition Provisional Authority that a system of kickbacks had been in place, it was the policy of this government to support the United Nations’ endeavours to get to the heart of it, and we duly did. We provided the Volcker committee with everything that we could usefully find that would help them with their inquiries. If we had known about the kickbacks prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein and we had information that would have helped Volcker, we would have provided it to him, but we did not have the information.
The opposition’s argument is built around the proposition that we should have provided Volcker with information that we simply did not have. We were happy to help Volcker. The Prime Minister gave an instruction in writing that government departments and the government should support and assist Volcker. That was a standing instruction to all relevant government departments, and they duly provided that assistance.
The point here is that the opposition is trying to make an argument they tried desperately to make last week. The argument they tried to make last week was the argument that the Leader of the Opposition put to the National Press Club: that somehow the government is corrupt and individuals in the government are corrupt. That is what he said at the National Press Club.
The Deputy Leader of the Opposition interjects that the government knew—that the government somehow knew that the Wheat Board was paying kickbacks and it thought, ‘Good, that’s a great thing for the Wheat Board to do.’ That is one of many very dishonest allegations that have been made against this government. The government has fully, generously and helpfully provided assistance to Volcker and, of course, now to the Cole inquiry.
At the end of the day, we will wait and see what the Cole inquiry comes up with, because Mr Cole made it very clear—contrary to what the Leader of the Opposition asserts—that it necessarily follows that the knowledge of the Commonwealth of any relevant facts is a matter to be addressed by this inquiry and is in the existing terms of reference in the letters patent. That means the role of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the process of obtaining UN approval and the knowledge of DFAT in relation to such contracts. So, if DFAT knew all about this, Mr Cole will certainly find out and that will be reported.
Before the Cole commission reports, these kinds of empty, puerile, party political allegations by the opposition deserve to be rejected. In moving these sorts of motions before the Cole commission reports, the opposition are showing quite clear disrespect to Mr Cole and his commission, as well as to the ministers, the Prime Minister, the public servants and the diplomats, all of whom have worked tirelessly. (Time expired)
Today is the day that the Prime Minister’s credibility and the Deputy Prime Minister’s credibility have exploded in this place on the issue of the wheat for weapons scandal. The Prime Minister’s credibility has exploded, as he knows full well—and we can tell by the worried looks on the faces of his advisers—around this simple proposition: the Prime Minister has argued to this parliament and to the country for three months that, firstly, the powers available to the Cole commission of inquiry do not need to be widened, because the government got a clean bill of health from the Volcker inquiry; secondly, the Volcker inquiry made that finding because the Volcker inquiry had full cooperation with it; and, thirdly, the Volcker inquiry had access to full documentation from the Howard government. This is the essence of the Prime Minister’s argument as he escapes from the chamber.
The Prime Minister repeated this three-part argument today in parliament. He said that there were no adverse findings by Volcker and that, if he had found anything wrong with what the government had done, the Prime Minister would have commissioned a wider commission of inquiry. That is his logic. Of course, that is not the first time the Prime Minister has said that. He said that formerly in parliament and we asked him to confirm it today. On 31 October, he said:
... having received in the case of Australia full responses and cooperation and full documentation, if there were anything lacking in the behaviour of Australia in relation to her obligations, the Volcker inquiry would have so reported.
That is the government’s case as to why Mr Cole has narrow terms of reference. It rests entirely on the government’s Volcker defence—
which rests entirely on this critical assumption: that the government was honest in its statements to the parliament and the people that it provided full documentation to Volcker—and you did not. In Senate estimates, Senator Faulkner asked your officials whether the Volcker investigators were able to examine electronic files. The answer given in Senate estimates was no. These were supplementary questions in Senate estimates—a formal answer on the part of the Commonwealth. Therefore, you did not provide full documentation. How therefore can you rely on your defence?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Therefore, based on the Prime Minister’s argument and given that we now know that full documentation was not provided to Volcker, and based on what he said to this parliament today, the powers of the Cole commission must now be expanded. You can go nowhere else other than that. If the government did not provide electronic files, it means they did not provide emails. Emails are part of electronic files. Therefore, you did not provide full documentation to Volcker. We already know from the Cole commission of inquiry how much critical information is contained in email traffic. If the government’s entire defence is constructed on that premise, it has collapsed in this parliament today. That is the Prime Minister’s credibility.
As for the Deputy Prime Minister’s credibility, it has exploded around this single argument. The Deputy Prime Minister said that all previous warnings received by the government were not specific to AWB. You have said that warnings that were received by the Coalition Provisional Authority did not refer to the AWB by name. With regard to the Treasury document referred to in today’s press, the government’s response was that the AWB was not referred to by name. Deputy Prime Minister, this document by the United States Department of Defense does make a reference explicitly to the AWB by name. Your entire defence at this point collapses as well. This document was referred to the Coalition Provision Authority by the US Department of Defense. You have senior representation on the Coalition Provisional Authority. It was therefore in the government’s possession. You have not denied that in question time. As a consequence, as a government you were in possession of documentation that warned you specifically of what the AWB was up to—the inflating of prices under the oil for food program. For those reasons you stand censured. (Time expired)
The time for the debate has concluded. Before I call for the question, I remind members of two points: first of all, their remarks should be addressed through the chair and the use of the word ‘you’ is to be desisted from; and, secondly, a motion to suspend standing orders is not a motion of censure. And, particularly from the member for Griffith, I did not once hear him refer to the motion, despite being asked to. If this happens in the future, I will act on it. The question is that the motion be agreed to.
Mr Speaker, I raise a point of order. You just said that the time for the debate had expired, but the new standing order we passed last week provides for a further five minutes for another government member. We are waiting to hear.
I thank the member for Fraser for his point of order, but I remind him that the motion passed last week related to a matter of dissent, not a matter of suspension of standing orders.
That the motion (That the motion () be agreed to.