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Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Page: 97


Mr ABBOTT (Leader of the House) (3:52 PM) —Let me say of the member for Griffith what the member for Lalor says of the Leader of the Opposition—‘He’s trying.’ He is trying, but he is not succeeding. This tactic just is not working and it is not working because of the commonsense of the Australian people. The Australian people understand that the last thing this government would have been doing is, on the one hand, contemplating military action against Iraq and, on the other hand, funding the Iraqi regime. They understand because they have commonsense—which is lacking to members opposite—that there is something utterly implausible in the proposition that the opposition are putting forward.

The Australian people also understand that a distinguished judge is looking into this matter—a judge with no axe to grind, a judge with access to all the information that there is to be had—and they are quite prepared to wait for the verdict of Commissioner Cole rather than to believe the bluster that we get day in, day out from members opposite. Finally, the general public understand that deep down all of this is a smokescreen. Day in, day out, since the beginning of this year, members opposite have come into this House and talked about propriety and competence in government, yet they cannot show propriety and competence in opposition. That is their problem. If you are going to criticise the government for alleged lack of propriety and alleged incompetence, you too have to show in your own much more minor responsibilities a level of propriety and competence.

What we have seen today, in a way which I do not think has been highlighted before, is the Leader of the Opposition losing what has long been considered his best asset. He was visibly losing it in every sense at the ministerial table today. His best asset is his reputation with the Australian public for being a decent bloke. Today in question time and afterwards I heard the Leader of the Opposition calling members opposite—and this is a random selection of the abusive terminology he used—‘twit,’ ‘drop kick,’ ‘goose’ and ‘pompous ass.’ We are seeing from the Leader of the Opposition a level of viciousness to equal that of former Prime Minister Mr Keating, with the same foul temper but without the wit to express it that the former Prime Minister possessed.

In this matter of public importance we see the opposition’s obsession with AWB. The reason they are obsessed with AWB is that, as long as they have some spurious criticism of the government, it stops them criticising each other. Mr Deputy Speaker, it is not working. Even the attacks that they are attempting to mount on the government are feeding the leadership tensions inside the opposition. The member for Griffith, the gentleman opposite, claims that his forensic attacks on the government are burnishing his leadership credentials. There is not a journalist or member of parliament in this place who does not know that he is running around saying in his own way, ‘Look at me,’ as indeed is the member for Lalor, and is saying that his attacks on the government in some way demonstrate support for his embattled leader, but at the same time the member for Griffith is telling every journalist who will listen—off the record, of course—that the Leader of the Opposition has just three months to prove himself and, if he cannot lift his game within the next three months, the national Right, particularly the New South Wales Right, will get rid of him. That is what the member for Griffith is saying. I thought there was a marvellous metaphor—


Mr Rudd —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I ask that the minister withdraw that remark because it is simply untrue.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—Which remark?


Mr Rudd —The remark concerning briefings to journalists on my part.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Griffith knows the standing orders as well as I do. If he thinks he has been misquoted in any way, he has a right after this to make a personal explanation.


Mr Rudd —Mr Deputy Speaker, I found the remarks offensive and I ask that the minister withdraw them.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I will not ask the minister to withdraw them.


Mr Melham —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Mr Deputy Speaker, perhaps you might rein in the minister so that he is relevant to the debate before the House. The comments he made are not relevant to the matter of public importance before the House.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Banks would know that an MPI is a fairly wide-ranging debate.


Mr Rudd —Mr Deputy Speaker, if a member finds remarks by another member offensive, is it not the custom of this House for the Deputy Speaker or the occupant of the chair to ask the member who has made those rude remarks to withdraw them?


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —No. The member for Griffith should know that that is up to the chair.


Mr ABBOTT —What I am attempting to do is to explain some of the context in which this matter of public importance debate has taken place. There was a marvellous metaphor for the state of the contemporary ALP today. The Leader of the Opposition did not want to wait to be run over by the proverbial bus, he went to the Belconnen bus depot; but there were just two problems—there was no-one on his bus and his bus was going nowhere. This is the absolute metaphor for the Leader of the Opposition and for the contemporary Labor Party.

What we have seen from the member for Griffith is the old ‘Either you’re a fool or a knave’ thesis. ‘The government knew that AWB was giving kickbacks and it did nothing, in which case it was corrupt,’ or, ‘It should have known, in which case it was incompetent.’ I say again: does anyone seriously believe that a government that was contemplating military action against Saddam Hussein would have knowingly funded that regime or would not have investigated any accusations that it was so doing? There is no significant evidence, despite all the bluster and bluff that we have heard over the last two months from members opposite, that the government has been either knowingly complicit in corrupt conduct or negligent in its pursuit of any such conduct.

Let us go back to the period in question. Who were the AWB’s greatest cheerleaders? None other than members opposite. They put out press releases publicly congratulating the AWB for selling wheat to Iraq. Who were the greatest critics of the sanctions regime, the breach of which they now wax so indignantly about? Members opposite. They said that the sanctions regime was killing the Iraqi people.

Let us take the precise point that the member for Griffith has alleged today. The member for Griffith alleged that there is no power, as things stand, for the Cole inquiry to inquire into misdeeds by the Commonwealth. Let me quote paragraphs 7 and 8 of Commissioner Cole’s statement issued on 3 February:

7. It necessarily follows that the knowledge of the Commonwealth of any relevant facts is a matter to be addressed by this Inquiry, and is within the existing terms of reference in the Letters Patent.

I would suggest to the member for Griffith that, rather than forming an unholy alliance with his rival, the member for Lalor, he actually listen. Instead of this odd unity ticket that we see forming now on the opposition front bench, he should listen to the words of Commissioner Cole. Why is he scared of listening to Commissioner Cole? Why does he raise his hand in horror at hearing the words of Commissioner Cole thrown back at him? The statement continues:

8. 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 by AWB to Alia.

So the existing terms of reference allow Commissioner Cole, should he think such findings justified, to make critical findings of the Commonwealth, its agents and its agencies. That is what is clearly apparent from the commissioner’s statement of 3 February.

As I said, members opposite know that there is no foundation whatsoever in the charge that underlies this MPI. It is a complete smokescreen to hide the rancour that exists inside the Australian Labor Party right now. We all know that they are desperately hoping that the mounting leadership challenge will go away. I quote the member for Hotham in the Weekend Australian of 11 March:

I’m not saying you can’t have factions. I’m saying you can’t have leaders as dud as the current ones that are in control.

We have the former leader of the party claiming that the current leader of the party is a dud. That was Crean on Beazley. Then we have Beazley on Crean in response.


Mrs Irwin —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. It is quite obvious that the minister is not aware of what the MPI is, and I feel you should draw his attention to it.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—The member for Fowler would know that the member for Griffith made a fairly wide-ranging attack on the government. I call the minister.


Mr ABBOTT —So we had Crean attacking Beazley. Now we have the Leader of the Opposition attacking the member for Hotham. He said:

What Simon wanted was a stitch-up to prevent a challenge. He invited me to participate and I said, ‘No Simon. Trust the party. Trust the preselection process.’


Ms George —On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, I draw your attention to the issue of relevance. The comments being made by the minister in this debate have nothing to do with the issue that was the subject of the MPI. I ask that you call him to order.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —There is no point of order. I call the minister.


Mr ABBOTT —This MPI is plainly about covering up the tensions inside the Labor Party, because then we had the member for Hotham accusing his leader of being a liar.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I ask the minister to withdraw that remark.


Mr ABBOTT —For speaking untruths. I withdraw, Mr Deputy Speaker. Mr Crean told the Australian:

I never asked him for a factional stitch-up. Never. I asked him for one thing, and that’s to repeat what he said 12 months ago, that he needed my experience on the front bench.

So we had Crean on Beazley, we had Beazley on Crean and then, of course, we had Gillard on Beazley.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The minister will refer to members by their electorates.


Mr ABBOTT —We had the member for Lalor on the Leader of the Opposition. She said:

I genuinely think Kim is trying.

You know the sense in which she said it: very trying indeed! He will not let her ask questions in the parliament. He blocks her in the tactics committee every day. Anyone who watched Australian Story the other day would know he will not even take a bit of paper from the member for Lalor. That is how much he mistrusts her.


Mrs Irwin —On a point of order, Mr Speaker, it is quite obvious again that this has nothing to do with the MPI.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —There is no point of order.


Mr ABBOTT —Then, having had Hotham on Brand, Brand on Hotham and Lalor on Brand, we then had Brand on Lalor, speaking through his mouthpiece, his former Chief of Staff, Michael Costello, who said of the member for Lalor: ‘Her prescriptions on policy or the future of the party’—


Mr Rudd —Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: the minister is reducing the proceedings of this House to nothing better than farce. I would ask you to draw this minister back to a level of civility—


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —There is no point of order. The member for Griffith will resume his seat.


Mr ABBOTT —I am not being uncivil; I am simply quoting members opposite on members opposite. That is where the lack of civility is. (Time expired)