House debates

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Prime Minister; Deputy Prime Minister; Minister for Foreign Affairs

Censure Motion

3:03 pm

Photo of Kim BeazleyKim Beazley (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That this House censure the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs for:

its negligence in failing to act on the 35 warnings it received over a five year period thereby allowing this $300 million wheat for weapons scandal to occur;
for its attempted cover-up of this scandal through its attempts to shut down a US Senate inquiry into AWB in 2004; its reluctance to cooperate with the Volcker Inquiry; and its failure to provide the Cole Inquiry with powers to determine whether or not Ministers did their job in enforcing UN sanctions against Iraq;
for the cost that has been borne by Australia’s hardworking wheat farmers because of this Government’s negligence—farmers who have now seen half a billion dollars of their Iraqi wheat market lost;
for allowing $300 million to be funnelled from AWB to Saddam Hussein’s regime which the Iraqi dictator used to buy guns, bombs and bullets for later use against Australian and coalition troops; and
for the damage inflicted on Australia’s international reputation because this Government’s negligence turned Australia into the world’s single biggest violator of UN sanctions against Iraq.

There are five volumes here of absolute infamy—2,065 pages. Sometimes in politics it is not easy to see the wood for the trees. When you look at this—volume after volume of one piece of chicanery after another by AWB’s rorting the UN sanctions regime, effectively funding Saddam Hussein over a five-year period, on a matter at the very core of Australian foreign policy—you have to ask yourself a fundamental question about the competence of this government and the slipshod public standards represented by this government’s culpable negligence on this issue, about which it received 35 warnings and chose not to investigate.

Even though this commission of inquiry did not have the authority to go after that negligence through the terms of reference that were put down, it nevertheless did point out, as it slightly strayed from the path set by the government, the failure of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to even remotely understand what would be regarded as a reasonable interpretation of its role and authority in monitoring those contracts it was ticking off. That ought to at least cause the Minister for Foreign Affairs to step aside if the man had any sense of honour at all. The fact remains, irrespective of whether or not it was being lied to by the AWB, that 41 contracts were signed off by this foreign minister.

These are contracts with consequences. The Prime Minister, in his extraordinary answer to my last question said, ‘Well, it’s not really Australian money—ha ha!—it’s money from an escrow account in the UN,’ as though that excuses them. It is so typical of the trickiness with which they have addressed every single element of this crime—tricky in their terms of reference and tricky when it comes to the claim that it is Australian money that went to supply those bullets, ‘Oh no, it was not Australian money.’ It was UN money let loose by your negligence. That is what it was, and it has consequences.

Let me tell you, Prime Minister, how Saddam Hussein used the money that he got—and remember that our negligence was the single biggest contributor to his poultice of illegal money that supported his activities. Saddam, as a result of our actions, was able to maintain the Scud missile launchers for which the SAS were asked to risk their lives to destroy. He was able to maintain the Iraqi soldiers in machine-gun-mounted four-wheel drives that the SAS fought running battles with early in the war. He was able to maintain a good proportion of the 50 aircraft that the Australian Special Forces Group captured at Al Asad air base west of Baghdad. He was able to maintain the sea mines which RAN boarding parties risked their lives to neutralise before they were deployed from tugboats to destroy coalition shipping. He was able to maintain the tanks, trucks, artillery bunkers and logistical support which RAAF Hornet pilots risked their lives to destroy in strike and close air support missions. It would be entirely unsurprising to me if some of that money were still being used to maintain the insurgency which continues to threaten our troops on a daily basis with IEDs, antitank missiles, suicide bombers and small arms. Somebody pays the price. A lot of Iraqis have paid the price, but Australian soldiers pay the price for this sort of negligence.

While this government presided over the utter failure of the relevant departments to properly inquire into what AWB was doing over a five-year period, other Australian service personnel were putting their lives on the line. I have only gone through that which was confronted immediately by service personnel in the Iraq war and now, but before then there were Australian warships operating in the Gulf with the explicit charter to enforce and uphold sanctions. They asked questions, they stopped the boats and they inspected the innards of those boats. They did not ask a question of the captain, ‘Are you smuggling anything, old chap?’ and when the captain replied, ‘Oh no, I’m not smuggling something,’ they did not turn away. They boarded the ships and they went into the holds—night after night after night. That is what the armed services do when they are instructed to do something by the government. They do not just ask a series of vapid questions and, because the questions are being directed to their mates in the National Party, not bother to follow up on them; they actually go into the ships that they are inspecting.

It is not surprising to me, therefore, that a man so closely connected with the events which were set loose by this government in Major Tinley should now feel, as he looks at the rort of the AWB operation, like saying something like this—an absolute rort on the Australian Defence Force, on the people who actually went into western Iraq and did all the work that was required and asked of them by this government. Actually, it was worse than a rort; it endangered them. What was done by this government endangered them.

There has been an obscene celebration around the government benches that the government’s rorted terms of reference produced the only outcome that they could produce, and that was that its culpable negligence was never subject by this commission of inquiry to any serious investigation because it could not be. The government says there is no evidence that it did anything wrong but, frankly, as you go through the five volumes, the 2,065 pages, there is no evidence that the government did anything right. It says there is no evidence that it did anything wrong, but in those 2,065 pages there is not one word that says the government did anything right—that it ever made the serious detailed inquiries or that it ever did the political equivalent of what our naval personnel did day after day of enforcing their end of the sanctions regime in the Persian Gulf. There was hard action by the military, risky action by the military, diligent action by the military, and complete and utter compliance by this government in the things that were being done.

Those in the government have been very boastful in their statements to us over the last couple of days. There is not the slightest suspicion on the part of the member for Griffith or me that there was ever going to be a decision reached by this inquiry that would find these folk culpable of anything, because we understood from the outset that it was set up that way. That was obvious to us after correspondence between the member for Griffith and the Cole commission. It is no particular revelation to us. There is no overwhelming disappointment on our part for the fact that no responsibility has been accepted by the Prime Minister or by any of his ministerial colleagues. There is disappointment, however, on behalf of the Australian people.

Let me go to one of the editorials that has been produced today on the performance by our government in the Cole commission of inquiry. I will go through these in some detail a little later. Mr Speaker, you will recollect in this chamber—and we had it here again today—the constant calls from the government for an apology, of all things, from me and the member for Griffith to the ministers who are the perpetrators of this negligence. I will go to the last paragraph of the editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald today:

‘I don’t expect it will happen, but Mr Downer and Mr Vaile are owed apologies by Mr Beazley and Mr Rudd,’ Mr Howard said yesterday, citing his political opponents’ pursuit of his ministers over the AWB scandal. On the contrary, Prime Minister, it is the Australian people who are owed the apology. Your ministers, who have so signally failed to manage their portfolios, should make it.

Indeed they should. I have not seen such unanimity by editorial writers on the culpability of this government. Every one of the editorial writers in the major daily newspapers today has picked up on the obvious fact that this government has dodged a bullet largely by its own manipulation, not by the fact that its conduct was inspected and regarded as adequate by an appropriate authority. You can see that in the headlines. The Age said:

The Federal Government says it has been exonerated by the Cole report. Questions, however, remain on its responsibilities.

The Herald Sun editorial is entitled ‘A case of incompetence’, and it starts with quite a nice quote from the Prime Minister from October 2005 in which he said:

‘My dealings with the people in AWB ... (they’ve) always been a very straight up and down group of people.’

Then we have the editorial in today’s Financial Review entitled, ‘Matter of shame and competence.’ The Canberra Times editorial is entitled, ‘PM’s wheat-wash not white enough’. In the Australian we see:

Cole shows depth of AWB deceit.

AWB’s double dealings in Iraq have cost Australia dearly and politicians must share some of the blame.

They shared an awful lot more of it when you go into the detail of that. ‘No excuses for funding a villain’, said the Daily Telegraph. The Sydney Morning Herald article that I quoted from earlier said, ‘Government still not off the hook.’

They are very bored with this analysis of their activities; nevertheless, they stand condemned. This Prime Minister and his ministers say that it is simply not their fault. They will not take responsibility. He never takes responsibility for himself. He never pays the price for his incompetence. Alexander Downer and Mark Vaile do not pay the price. Who pays the price? Australians pay the price: not just our young heroes in Iraq facing insurgents armed by AWB’s bribes; Australia’s hardworking wheat growers have paid the price. AWB is threatened by lawsuits both in Australia and overseas. There are potential further restrictions on AWB’s trade overseas, and trade with Iraq worth more than $500 million a year has been lost. AWB shareholders have lost half the value of their investment.

How did that happen? What are the shattering facts? Firstly, Australia’s monopoly wheat exporter bribed the Saddam regime to buy Australian wheat. As I said, this is no ordinary scandal. Domestic laws were broken, international obligations were ignored and there were hundreds of millions in bribes, and topless photos to boot. It took special people to manage this. You see, Prime Minister, this was the National Party on tour. You can just see the emails home: ‘Send lawyers, guns and money.’ Lying with lawyers, playing with guns and bribing with millions! They thought they could get away with anything because they knew the government did not want to know. That is the nasty little secret here, Prime Minister: the essential connection between the people who were running AWB and your ministers and the government. The people in AWB knew the government did not want to know. They thought it was ‘mates’ rules’: what goes on tour stays on tour. The departments of Alexander Downer and Mark Vaile—

Photo of David HawkerDavid Hawker (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I am reluctant to interrupt, but would the Leader of the Opposition refer to ministers.

Photo of Kim BeazleyKim Beazley (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

The departments of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the then Minister for Trade, the Deputy Prime Minister, approved the contracts that contained the bribes. What was the AWB executive supposed to think about the state of the government’s mind while all this was going on? They had had 35 warnings, and occasionally they were confronted by Foreign Affairs officials who had been tipped off to those warnings and asked the questions, to which AWB answered: ‘No, we’re not doing anything.’ You know: ‘There’s no gambling going on here, Sir! Nothing is happening here.’ Was there a further question then? No. There was no further question.

What do you think they thought from all of that? What they thought, of course, was that they were approved. We are not dealing here with some sort of group of spivs, hanging about overseas in the bars of downtown Hong Kong, downtown Shanghai or wherever. What we are dealing with are people who are senior in the councils of at least one of the political parties that make up this coalition; people who have been candidates for the National Party in federal elections; people who have sat on the executive of the National Party, at both the state and federal levels; people who stand well with the government; people who are intimate with the details of how this country is governed; people who are intimate with the details of how ministers relate to each other and how departments through those ministers officiate over their affairs.

In AWB we are dealing with a body in which a large number of members of the government are shareholders, in which many farmers in this country who support different elements of the government are shareholders. We are dealing with AWB, with the heart and soul of the National Party—one of the bodies that make up this coalition government, one which the Liberal Party never dares confront and allows to go on in their own sweet way, doing whatever it is that they please. That is how this scandal started. This Prime Minister, the trickiest we have seen in that position in this country for a very lengthy period of time, knows how to dodge between the raindrops as he avoids any form of obligation and any form of blame in relation to this matter.

What is his defence now? What is his defence reduced to? What is his default position explaining what it is they are up to? The Prime Minister says to us: ‘We are not criminal. We are just incompetent. Our ministers are not criminals; they are just incompetent.’ Either way, these ministers should have resigned months ago and must resign now. If they do not, the Prime Minister should sack them or sack himself. Understand this: the government were warned 35 times. In 1998, they were warned by our intelligence community; in 1999, they were warned by the Canadians; in 2000, they were warned by the United Nations; in 2001, they were warned by the New York Times; in 2002, they were warned by Australian grain merchants; in 2003, they were warned by the United States; in 2004, they were warned by the Australian Defence Force; and, in 2005, they were warned by AWB itself but they did not want to know the truth.

Before, during and after the Iraq war and even when the Volcker inquiry was underway, the Howard government did nothing to stop hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to the Saddam regime. It did nothing to uphold the sanctions against Saddam. It did nothing to prevent funding of suicide bombers and regime forces. It did nothing to protect the reputation of Australia’s hardworking wheat growers. It did nothing to protect the future of the single desk. Howard, Downer and Vaile—the three wise monkeys—saw nothing, heard nothing, said nothing. Those three ministers so resemble those three wise monkeys—hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. You could not want a better simile for the government’s behaviour in this very sorry scandal. They did nothing.

They let Australia down. They betrayed their ministerial oaths. They betrayed what the Australian people expected of them, which is that they would diligently administer their departments and ensure that the Australian national interest was protected at all times. The thing that I find most unforgivable is that their behaviour is at odds with and is a total betrayal of our armed forces, whom they committed to battle and committed to upholding the sanctions regime with a diligence which they never displayed but should have emulated. They should be censured. (Time expired)

Photo of David HawkerDavid Hawker (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

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

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

3:23 pm

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

Rather predictably, the Leader of the Opposition has moved a censure motion. The fact that he spent almost 10 minutes quoting from editorials was message enough to me that there was very little of substance in the motion that he brought before the parliament. But let me give it the seriousness that a censure motion against a Prime Minister and a government deserves and deal with the substance of the allegation made by the Leader of the Opposition. The substance of that allegation was that the government deliberately or through conduct equal to deliberation turned a blind eye to what was going on, that it did not want to know what was going on and, therefore, until confronted with irrefutable evidence that something was wrong, it preferred not to know anything about the allegations that were made in relation to AWB. The other allegation made by the Leader of the Opposition is that the government deliberately organised terms of reference that would prevent the commissioner making an adverse finding against me or against any of my ministers.

I want to deal in the time available to me with those two claims, because they are the only claims of substance that have been made. Let me deal first of all with the claim that in some way we manipulated the terms of reference. That is a claim which I emphatically reject. In emphatically rejecting it, I draw on no greater authority than that of Commissioner Cole himself. On 3 February this year, Commissioner Cole issued a lengthy statement amidst claims that in some way the terms of reference were too restrictive. Amongst other things, what he had to say is very pertinent to the claim raised by the Leader of the Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition is asking the parliament to censure the government inter alia because we rorted the terms of reference. This is what Commissioner Cole had to say:

That means that this inquiry will address and make findings regarding at least the following: (a) the role of DFAT in the process of obtaining United Nations approval of AWB wheat contracts within the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme; (b) the knowledge of DFAT in relation to such contracts; (c) what AWB told the Commonwealth, and in particular DFAT, relating to the Iraqi wheat contracts; and (d) whether the Commonwealth, and in particular DFAT, was informed of any knowledge AWB may be found to have had, regarding payments made by AWB to Alia.

In other words, Mr Cole was saying that, under the terms of reference given to him by the government, he would examine in full every aspect of DFAT’s behaviour in this whole matter. There was no restriction. He said he would look at everything that DFAT did—

Photo of Alexander DownerAlexander Downer (Mayo, Liberal Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

And he did.

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.

Photo of Kim BeazleyKim Beazley (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Beazley interjecting

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

The Leader of the Opposition, as usual, is constantly yabbering across the table here. The Leader of the Opposition spent almost 10 minutes quoting from editorials in newspapers, because there was absolutely no substance in the censure motion that he brought against us.

The Leader of the Opposition is very disappointed by the commission’s report and so is the member for Griffith, because they had built an elaborate attack on the reputation of my government based on the evidence relating to AWB. I am very proud that this government did the right thing in establishing this inquiry, and I will yield to nobody in this parliament in relation to issues relating to a willingness to have a transparent investigation where matters ought to be fully investigated.

Photo of Kim BeazleyKim Beazley (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Beazley interjecting

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

The Leader of the Opposition may interject as often as he likes, but nothing can alter the fact that the day we decided to give the powers of a royal commissioner to Mr Cole was the day we set up the circumstances where we got to the bottom of what really happened. The power of Mr Cole to demand the production of documents was the key to finding out what really happened.

I reject the censure motion moved by the Leader of the Opposition. I take this opportunity to place on record my total support for and confidence in the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, both of whose reputations have been unreasonably traduced by the Leader of the Opposition and the member for Griffith. Attack them for what they believe in, but do not baselessly attack their integrity! (Time expired)

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)

3:54 pm

Photo of Alexander DownerAlexander Downer (Mayo, Liberal Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

For the last year, the Leader of the Opposition in particular has made a series of utterly outrageous claims.

Photo of Simon CreanSimon Crean (Hotham, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

No, they haven’t! You should apologise!

Photo of David HawkerDavid Hawker (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! First of all, I remind members that, in this debate, while it is a censure motion, all speakers have been heard without interruption.

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

Mr Speaker, on a point of order, I ask you to require the Minister for Foreign Affairs to address members by their proper titles.

Photo of Alexander DownerAlexander Downer (Mayo, Liberal Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Speaker, for the last year, the Leader of the Opposition, in particular—who now walks out, with all the courage he can muster; he is a weak and dishonest man—has engaged in some of the most egregious slurs that I have seen in my 22 years in politics. Let us just take this example, from an interview with Mr Carlton on Radio 2UE on 24 January:

CARLTON: Do you really believe that the Government knew that the AWB was bribing Saddam Hussein and his henchmen?

BEAZLEY: Absolutely.

The Leader of the Opposition went on to say at the National Press Club about a week later: ‘This episode exposes the immorality and the corruption besetting this government.’ He went on the Lateline program on 6 February and said:

What we’re interested is demonstrating as well what we believe to be the case and that’s that they turned a blind eye to it ...

He said ‘they turned a blind eye’ a month or so later. On 24 March on Radio 2UE—his favourite outlet, apparently—the Leader of the Opposition said:

On AWB they have been dissembling, not telling the truth for months ...

...             ...             ...

... they have been deceiving. They have been telling lies.

...             ...             ...

They have been doing everything to cover this up ...

The problem with this particular narrative is that it is manifestly untrue, and the Cole commission has proven the allegations made by the Leader of the Opposition and by the member for Griffith to be completely false. And of course these allegations have been picked up by some others and run all over Australia. So all over Australia we have had these allegations that we are liars, that we are cheats, that we were involved in cover-ups, that we are corrupt. Mr Speaker, excuse me if I say this to the House, but it is a preposterous thing to allege that against a member of parliament of any party at any time and for that subsequently to have been exposed as being simply untrue—and that is what has happened here.

The Cole commission has been an outstanding effort to expose the activities of AWB Ltd and its deceit of the Australian government; in that respect it has certainly been outstanding. Indeed, the government has been vindicated in the setting up of the Cole commission to get to the heart of what had been happening in terms of the wheat trade with Iraq.

But the Cole commission has incidentally taken out the Leader of the Opposition’s credibility. He has been standing in this parliament and at the National Press Club, and speaking over and over again on radio and television throughout the last year, telling manifest untruths. He has been lying over and over again. And that has been proven by the Cole commission. This commission is an enormous embarrassment to the Leader of the Opposition and the member for Griffith, whose only defence is now to turn around and say, ‘We don’t like the terms of reference. The terms of reference didn’t look into the government’—‘didn’t look into the government’! The Prime Minister, the foreign minister and the trade minister—the Deputy Prime Minister—spent hours in the witness box. ‘Didn’t look into the government’! I myself spent—I might be wrong—3½ to four hours answering questions from counsel, and not just counsel assisting the commissioner; I spent hours being cross-examined by various counsel representing AWB employees and the like.

The government was not only transparent in going before the commission; the government’s documentation was run through with a fine-tooth comb by Commissioner Cole and, of course, all the people who assisted him. And what did it show? It showed a lot of things. But one thing it showed is that what the Labor Party, particularly the Leader of the Opposition, and others, have been saying about the Prime Minister, ministers, and the officials of my department, is quite untrue.

We have silly questions today—no new information—and the Leader of the Opposition moves his entirely predictable censure motion. Well, it was not actually entirely predictable, because I did not think he would continue with his campaign of falsehood. The first point he makes is that the government was negligent in relation to the 35 warnings. The problem for the Leader of the Opposition and the problem for the Labor Party is that Commissioner Cole addressed the issue of the warnings. Although I know the Leader of the Opposition has not read any of the Cole report, or hardly any of the Cole commission report—

Photo of Andrew SouthcottAndrew Southcott (Boothby, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

He doesn’t read the papers!

Photo of Alexander DownerAlexander Downer (Mayo, Liberal Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

and, as the honourable member says, he does not even read the papers—some of his staff will have gone through it—and notice the fact that you get no questions from the Labor Party about the warnings. Why is that, do you think? Why is it that they run the warnings as an assertion, and they get others to run them, but they do not ever confront the government directly with the issue of the warnings? It is because Commissioner Cole went to this issue and said: ‘In regard to the many events during and after the oil for food program, it is not a correct approach to consider such events and circumstances cumulatively’ and ‘it is not permissible to use hindsight to seek to establish a relationship between events’. Commissioner Cole dismissed this allegation in black and white but the Leader of the Opposition, who has not read the report and never will read the report, just rants his assertions with false anger and the false indignation of which he is a master—of course, the public has spotted that. He is exposed by the Cole commission yet again for being wrong.

Did we know about the kickbacks? The Cole commission says no. The Leader of the Opposition knows better, does he? He says yes. He says yes but the Cole commission says no. Does the Cole commission say that the officials of my department are corrupt or colluding with AWB Ltd or are bad people? Does the commissioner say that? No, he does not. The Labor Party says that—but not the commissioner. The Labor Party has been smearing the reputation of officials of my department, implying—and sometimes saying—they are in collusion with AWB Ltd in a cover-up and corruption. That is a vile thing to have said about those officials. The House may be interested to know that, as the leader of that portfolio, I pass on their sentiments to this House and to this nation. The anger of some of the people in my department over what has been said and written about them and their integrity is palpable. They are completely vindicated by the Cole commission.

The Leader of the Opposition’s motion says that the government attempted to shut down the US senate inquiry into AWB in 2004. The government did not. The government never attempted to shut down that inquiry. The government only asked that AWB be treated with procedural fairness: that it be treated fairly and in a non-discriminatory way—non-discriminatory vis-a-vis American companies. And, of course, AWB, through all that period—the period of the Volcker inquiry and right up to the end of the Volcker inquiry—were continuing to insist that they were not involved in kickbacks. If you read the whole report, you will see exactly what is said and what the issues really are.

I have mentioned already, as the Prime Minister has, that the Leader of the Opposition said that the government had failed:

... to provide the Cole Inquiry with powers to determine whether or not Ministers did their job ...

If ministers had known about this and ministers had not enforced the sanctions regime, that would be a profoundly serious offence—it is only that that is not true. The Cole commission has found that that is not true. And that is a matter of profound embarrassment to the blowhard Leader of the Opposition: for all his abuse and denigration of people, his abuse has been found to be entirely without foundation.

The fact is—and this is the problem with the Labor Party and their fellow travellers’ narrative—they think that somehow the government was in favour of sanctions busting of Saddam Hussein’s regime but at the same time in favour of getting rid of the regime. See, Mr Speaker, if you can work out the logic of that! Why would we get rid of Saddam Hussein’s regime if our view was that the great thing about it was that we could make a lot of money out of it—and who cares about the sanctions? Why would we have got rid of the regime? We presumably, according to that narrative, would have opposed, tooth and nail, the overthrow of Saddam’s regime.

Actually, quite the reverse is true: there were several occasions during that sanctions regime when I was attacked—not, admittedly, by the Labor Party—by people for our support for the sanctions. There were assertions made that the sanctions were hurting the livelihoods of ordinary people in Iraq and that I was a terrible person who supported those sanctions. I remember seeing people who came to argue the case that we should not support the sanctions and that we should support the lifting of the sanctions. I never did; I always supported the sanctions. As Commissioner Cole has shown, no instruction was given by any minister at any time from March 1996 up until the dismantling of the sanctions to go soft on the sanctions, to dismantle the sanctions or to abandon the sanctions. No instruction was given to do anything except uphold the sanctions. Nobody in the department ever thought they were doing anything but upholding the sanctions. The suggestion here of the Labor Party’s narrative is that we were in favour of getting rid of Saddam Hussein and we were in favour of sanctions busting.

Not only are both propositions entirely inconsistent but the argument is entirely incoherent. It is intellectually false. I tell you what: the Australian public know that. They know we were not opposed to sanctions—they know we supported the sanctions—and they know we were opposed, unlike the Labor Party, to Saddam Hussein’s regime to such an extent that we were prepared to contribute to getting rid of it. It is good riddance to bad rubbish, too, because it is a great thing that that regime has gone.

What would have happened if the mendacious, self-righteous Leader of the Opposition had had his way? We do not really know what would have happened, of course, because you never know what he really thinks on any given day. It depends which way the wind is blowing. But, according to his current rhetoric, not necessarily according to what he would have done at the time, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today, the oil for food program would still be in place and of course nobody would be any the wiser about the kickback regime that was taking place in the oil for food program. That is what would have happened if the Labor Party had had its way. That is what would have happened if the Labor Party had been influential enough in government to influence world policy. This Labor Party is led by the weakest man who has ever led the Labor Party. And it is not just my assertion; the public are onto it. Even the member for Griffith is twice as popular as the Leader of the Opposition to be the leader of the Labor Party. I agree with them: although the member for Griffith has been mendacious, the Leader of the Opposition’s performance throughout this matter has been a tissue of lies.

Question put:

That the motion (That the motion (Mr Beazley’s) be agreed to.) be agreed to.