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Wednesday, 15 February 2006
Page: 82


Mr VAILE (Minister for Trade) (3:15 PM) —Just on the issue of the suspension, there is no case for a suspension of standing orders and that is what this debate is about. The Leader of the Opposition has tried to hang his case on a few points on the way through that have been addressed in both the Cole inquiry and the Volcker inquiry and in questions in this place. The first allegation that the Leader of the Opposition raises in saying that there should be a suspension of standing orders is that this is the worst case of corruption perpetrated by the government. Blaming the government for the perpetration of this is a ludicrous and outrageous allegation against the government.

Opposition members interjecting—


The SPEAKER —Order! I remind members who have been warned that those warnings still stand.


Mr VAILE —This is an outrageous allegation against the government. At no stage did the government have any knowledge about whether kickbacks were being paid to the former Iraqi regime. I was never provided with any evidence supporting the allegation that AWB was paying kickbacks. DFAT did not approve AWB contracts under the oil for food program. That was the responsibility of the United Nations. DFAT did not approve the use of the trucking company Alia, and the government have cooperated fully with Volcker and with the Cole inquiry. The Leader of the Opposition says—and the opposition keep running this line—that there were 14 or 15 warnings on this. There were two major circumstances where allegations or concerns were raised, and they were addressed—one in 2000 and one in 2003. We have made that abundantly clear. That was made abundantly clear to the Volcker inquiry, and the Volcker inquiry recognised that.


Ms Gillard —Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Could you remind the Deputy Prime Minister he is supposed to be justifying why the standing orders of the House should not be suspended. If he wants to put his case in defence, he should take the censure motion.


The SPEAKER —The Deputy Prime Minister is in order, and I call the Deputy Prime Minister.


Mr VAILE —The points I am responding to are the points raised by the Leader of the Opposition giving reason why there should be a suspension. That is what I am responding to. At every point in this process the government has acted responsibly. From the start of this process, when allegations were raised without substantiation and without evidence, they were responded to.

The Leader of the Opposition said that, as the minister responsible, I have come in here unprepared. I am the minister responsible for trade and for providing Australian exporters with market access across the world. That is what I do, and that is what I have been doing for Australian wheat exporters—ensuring there is market access availability across the world. That is the best thing we can do to support Australian wheat growers.

I remind the Leader of the Opposition that, as a representative of our party coming from country Australia, I spend a lot of time with Australian wheat growers, talking to them about the issues that they are confronted with on a daily basis. One issue that concerns them greatly at the moment is that the political campaign being run by the Australian Labor Party is damaging their reputation across the world. They have stated that publicly—that it has been damaged across the world.


Ms Gillard —Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. When the Leader of the Opposition was speaking, you reminded him of his obligation to speak to the suspension motion. That must apply to the Deputy Prime Minister. The matters he is speaking on now are nowhere near the procedural question as to whether the House should move—


The SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition gave a fairly wide-ranging speech. I call the Deputy Prime Minister and remind him that the motion before the chair is the suspension of standing orders.


Mr VAILE —Mr Speaker, you make a very good point, because I made a note of the points raised by the Leader of the Opposition in moving this motion and I am going to respond to them. The Leader of the Opposition was given an opportunity to make his points, and I am going to respond to them. He claims that the government have truncated the Cole commission of inquiry. Has anybody bothered to ask what the Labor Party would have done in a similar circumstance? I can guarantee that the Labor Party would never have had a commission of inquiry into this issue. They would never have moved as quickly as we moved in giving to the Cole commission of inquiry the powers that the Cole commission has. The Labor Party would never have established the Cole commission of inquiry. The government have not truncated that. The government have given the Cole commission of inquiry extensive powers under the brief that has been given to it. We have indicated that if it wants to extend its terms of reference it only has to ask. The commissioner has asked for an extension of the terms of reference in a particular area. That has been granted. In his statement—and I will read this into the Hansard—the commissioner said:

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 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 then said:

That position has not been reached.

So the commissioner has made it abundantly clear that he is not hamstrung or restricted in dealing with the issue we have asked him to address in the wide-ranging terms of reference that he has been given. So the Leader of the Opposition’s claim that the Cole commission of inquiry has been truncated by the government is absolute rubbish. He went on then to claim that the government are only supplying documents to the Cole commission after they are being raised by the Australian Labor Party. That is a ludicrous proposition. They were provided at the earliest opportunity after the Cole commission of inquiry was established.

We have continued to say all the way through this process that we are cooperating fully with Cole. We want Cole to get to the bottom of all the facts in this whole issue in terms of the operations of the oil for food contracts that the Australian companies involved in the program were engaged in, and that was the AWB and two other companies. Obviously, the focus of the inquiry so far has been on the evidence that has been sought with regard to the activities of AWB, but it has been part heard. The Labor Party are hanging people out to dry. They are acting like a kangaroo court of judge, jury and executioner when the inquiry is still under way. The legally established inquiry is still under way and is still taking evidence. There are many witnesses, we understand, who have not appeared before the Cole commission of inquiry to give their evidence, yet the Labor Party are already prepared to bring down a verdict. That is not the Australian way. This has been established. I suggest that, in the circumstances, the Labor Party would never have established a commission of inquiry. We did; we should let it run its course, find what it is going to find and bring down its conclusions in the way it should.

In responding to the motion by the Leader of the Opposition, I say that he keeps reiterating the point, and the member for Griffith keeps reiterating the point, that there were 14 or 15 occasions of where the government should have done this and the government should have done that.


Mr Kerr interjecting


The SPEAKER —Order! The member for Denison is warned!


Mr VAILE —When issues of concern were raised, they were responded to. We have continued to make the point that the government was not aware of and had no knowledge of any kickbacks being paid by AWB or any other Australian company. No evidence was provided of that. We went through the process and the Volcker inquiry was established. Not only did we cooperate with the Volcker inquiry but we continued to encourage AWB, who were protesting innocence at the time, to cooperate fully with the inquiry. All through the process of the oil for food program we continued to remind AWB of their responsibilities under the oil for food program and the sanctions resolution. As soon as Volcker had reported, we moved very quickly to establish the Cole commission of inquiry here in Australia, as was suggested by Volcker and by the United Nations, to test in Australia whether any domestic laws had been broken. We have given the Cole commission of inquiry wide-ranging powers—powers almost of a royal commission in terms of how they can conduct their inquiry. They are part-way through that. The Australian Labor Party should let the Cole commission of inquiry run its course, continue to gather evidence, interrogate the people it has called before it to give evidence, find its conclusions and then deliver those conclusions to the Australian people in terms of what it believes has actually happened as far as the oil for food program is concerned. (Time expired)