Senate debates

Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers


3:05 pm

Photo of Ross LightfootRoss Lightfoot (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I am limited in what I believe I can say here this afternoon with respect to the AWB because of the ongoing Cole inquiry or at least the fact that the Cole inquiry determinations have yet to reach this parliament. But what I want to do is rebut some of those things that Senator Ludwig said or inferred. I have seen no evidence—and I have followed the AWB inquiry assiduously over the months that it has been running—that the Howard government is involved. I have seen no evidence that ministers of the Howard government are involved in these allegations. And I remind Senator Ludwig, and perhaps the Senate as well, that there are times when one feels like saying something about the perception or the actuality of rorts that happen from time to time—and in which governments are sometimes involved—but this is not that occasion.

I think the occasion should arise when we can continue to criticise the AWB and those things that happened. I am one of the critics of the AWB, even on the allegations that they have undertaken serious rorts in the Middle East. But I have held my tongue over the past few months and have said practically nothing about it. What I do know is this: there is undoubtedly wide concern about serious money, hundreds of millions of dollars, that was without doubt paid by way of devious means to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

Having been to Iraq on several occasions, I know how some of these things work in the Middle East. I am sure other senators here are aware of how one does business in the Middle East. Generally speaking, you do not do business in the Middle East in the way that you do it in the Western world. There are times when—and this in no way an excuse for what AWB has done or is accused of doing—if you want to deal in the Middle East, you conform to that tradition of doing deals the way they have done there for generations. I am not saying that that is acceptable. You can read into that what you like.

What I do know is this: in February 2006 the Minister for Justice and Customs, Senator Ellison, referred material relating to possible breaches of Australian law by certain Australian companies to the Australian Federal Police to investigate. We know that. The referral was made following the matters being raised by the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. They are both government arms. This was done in accordance with the guidelines that have been handed down and properly followed for the handling of such referrals. The referral was made to ensure full investigation of material concerning compliance issues which came to the attention of DFAT in the context of the Volcker report—that is, the American report—and the Cole inquiry. This material covered matters not covered by the Volcker or the Cole reports.

As a result of its inquiry, the AFP identified seven companies for investigation. These investigations relate to possible breaches of customs regulations and they are ongoing. A breach of those regulations could attract criminal penalties. While I am aware of speculation regarding the investigation, it is not appropriate for me to state today what I believe. I believe there is some concern otherwise these inquiries would not have been launched by the government. The inquiries were not launched by the opposition. The opposition did not approach the AFP; the government approached the AFP, through the proper channels. This is the proper course to take. Is anyone on the other side suggesting that the government has not followed the correct procedures?


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