Thursday, 9 February 2006
Questions without Notice
Oil for Food Program
My question is directed to Senator Coonan, Minister representing the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Trade. Minister, were the ministers for foreign affairs and trade aware that the Wheat Export Authority started investigating the inflated wheat price, the use of a Jordanian trucking company and the general ethics of AWB’s contracts with Iraq as early as February 2004? Does the government seriously maintain that Minister Truss was so out of touch with his portfolio that, before the royal commission was established, he was unaware of both this investigation and the activities of AWB? Given the Volcker inquiry and the allegations emanating from the United States, does the minister seriously maintain that neither Minister Truss nor anyone else alerted the Minister for Foreign Affairs or the Minister for Trade about these investigations that potentially so impacted on their duties and on Australia? Is the government really so dysfunctional, or is it a case of The Nationals protecting their vested interests in preference to those of the government?
Thank you to Senator Evans for the question. The short answer is of course: no, the government is far from dysfunctional. Whilst I cannot answer for Minister Truss, for the two ministers that I represent in this place my recollection of answers that they have given is that neither of the ministers was specifically aware of specific concerns until the context of the Volcker inquiry identified them with some particularity.
So the answer to the question is that this government has nothing to hide. That is why we have set up the Cole commission of inquiry. That is a commission with virtually unfettered authority within their terms of reference to make the necessary findings of fact not only in relation to the relevant companies—and in relation to BHP and Tigris, on the basis of the extended terms of reference—but also, certainly, in relation to the involvement of any Commonwealth officers. I can only repeat what the Prime Minister has repeatedly said—that, if the commissioner feels that he is in any way constrained, he can actually ask for other members of the government to appear as witnesses. I do not think anything could be more transparent than this commission.
There is no doubt that Australia has stepped up to the plate on this matter. We know that a number of countries may be involved, and Australia actually established a royal commission after the Volcker inquiry could not establish whether or not there were any specific matters that implicated AWB in a conclusive way. We do not resile from the fact that the royal commission should be allowed to get on with doing its job. The commission of inquiry should get on with doing its job where, quite properly, the detail of these matters will be addressed.
It is simply pointless for us to be speculating in this place—or indeed in the other place—jumping at shadows, clutching emails and trying to impute to ministers, who have said that they had no active involvement, some knowledge that they did not have. Let us all settle down and get to the bottom of this through a proper process, which is the commission of inquiry, and we will all be much the wiser and we will certainly be in a position where we will know the truth.
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I note the minister hid behind the Cole commission again as her defence for failing to answer as is her responsibility in the Senate. Despite the Volcker inquiry, the international furore and the Wheat Export Authority’s suspicions regarding the AWB’s activities, are we to seriously believe that no-one in government, in the ministry or in the Public Service sought any advice other than that of the accused—the AWB? Is it the case that you did not find anything or that you did not bother looking? Has the Howard government adopted the Nixon administration’s doctrine of plausible deniability?
Thank you to Senator Evans for the supplementary question. What I will repeat is that the Cole inquiry is there to answer these specific questions. It is entirely appropriate that the commission should run its course, and the opposition should, quite frankly, refrain from shooting people on suspicion.