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Thursday, 14 September 2006
Page: 90

Mr RUDD (3:21 PM) —Next month will mark one year since we in this place first started asking questions of the government about the biggest corruption scandal in Australia’s history—the $300 million wheat for weapons scandal. One year later it is worth reflecting on what exactly we have managed to extract from that mob opposite—otherwise called the government of Australia. It is interesting to have a look back at just how cocky they were a year ago. Take this, for example: in December last year the Prime Minister said in this place:

I begin ... by pointing out to the member for Griffith that it has not been established that AWB paid any kickbacks.

I thought that was a little novel, a little brave, a little unusual in defence. The Prime Minister goes on in a different answer:

... the people who run that company—

that is, the AWB—

are people of—

wait for it—

complete integrity.

That is the Prime Minister’s statement to the parliament, which puts a very interesting slant on the Liberal Party’s definition of integrity. Then, we have the real doozy. The Prime Minister says, referring to the member for Griffith again:

... is seeking through false allegations to blacken the reputation of ... the members of the Australian Wheat Board.

Poor petals, indeed. Twelve months later it is worth reflecting on how much things have changed. Man of steel these days barely mentions the ‘I’ word, that is the Iraq word, the war that dare not speak its name. It is the most spectacular failure of Australian foreign policy since Vietnam. Not only do we have problems mentioning the ‘I’ word in this place, there is the ‘A’ word—the AWB, the company that dare not speak its name. It is a company that, judging by at its employment record, becomes an employment agency for Liberal Party and National Party apparatchiks once they slither out of this place. The company that used to have untrammelled access to any government ministerial office it wanted at any time and at any place over the five years that this corruption scandal ran is suddenly a company that today dare not speak its name. It is a noncompany, erased entirely from the government’s public vocabulary.

There is a big linkage between these two—the Iraq war and the AWB. The Prime Minister said that the invasion of Iraq was necessary in order to deal with the global terrorist threat. That was an interesting argument in national security policy: you bankroll Saddam Hussein one day before bombing him the next. But the stupendous hypocrisy of this government’s foreign policy on Iraq is this: the Prime Minister has said on multiple occasions in this place, ‘The reason we have to invade Iraq is because the UN sanctions are not working.’ We now know, courtesy of the Volcker inquiry, why they were not working. This government, this mob opposite, these ministers, presided over the single largest source of illegal cash funnelled into the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein while those sanctions were in place. The stupendous hypocrisy of this government in doing so allowed $300 million in cold hard readies to be tipped into the Iraqi finance ministry to enable the Iraqi regime to buy guns, bombs and bullets for use against Australian troops.

I believe this entire scandal speaks volumes about the values for which this government stands. This government preaches values day in and day out but I say look carefully at what this government does, not just at what this government says. Look at what happened in this $300 million wheat for weapons scandal: it has totally undermined wheat exports from regions like that represented by the member for Maranoa—he should hang his head in shame.

The Cole inquiry is due to report by the end of this month. More than a year later it is therefore important to draw together the facts we have thus far established in this parliament, because this is the only place we can do that, as to what complicity the government has had in this, the worst corruption scandal in Australian history.

Fact one: we now know that this government is guilty of gross negligence. There were 33 separate warnings over a five-year period about what the AWB was up to and each one of those warnings was ignored, including by the minister at the table, Minister McGauran. Fact two: once this $300 million scandal started to leak out, they tried to cover it up. They misled our allies the Americans on at least three separate occasions and told them that everything was just fine and dandy and that there was no problem at all with the AWB, knowing full well that it stank to high heaven. But they did not seek to cover up just with the Americans; they also sought to cover up with the UN and the Volcker inquiry. They gagged Australian officials from appearing before the Volcker inquiry or being interviewed by that inquiry. This is quite staggering—they actually coached the AWB on how to answer questions put to them by the Volcker inquiry. We have put questions to the Prime Minister over the last few days about his foreign policy adviser, about how he should seek to restrict the AWB to some sort of small target: ‘Do not answer too many questions; do not be too forthright.’ This is quite extraordinary.

They sought to cover up their behaviour through the Volcker inquiry and to cover it up through misleading the Americans, but the grand cover-up of them all is this: the rorted terms of reference of the Cole inquiry itself. Anyone who looks at the text of these terms of reference knows that it is set up to do one thing alone, and that is to establish whether the AWB is guilty of criminal offences. There is no head of power and nothing to grant Commissioner Cole the power to determine whether ministers have done their job under Australian law—nothing whatsoever. This Prime Minister today stood at the dispatch box and tried to say that black was white yet again. So fact two is the cover-up.

Fact three is the gross damage to Australia’s national security and national economic interest. Our reputation around the world, though this government would perhaps not know it, is shredded. This country has prided itself for generations on being a bunch of people who respect international law and who uphold UN sanctions. We now discover that, of 2,100 companies investigated worldwide by the Volcker inquiry, we get the gold medal as the single largest provider of illegal cash to Saddam Hussein’s regime. I do not know how you blokes get out of bed in the morning and look in the mirror.

Mr Albanese interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Grandler has been warned that the chair will not tolerate any more interjections.

Mr RUDD —That is such a staggering indictment of your nonperformance as a minister in allowing the sanctions to have been breached so grossly. Then there comes a question of our wheat exports. Here we have in this chamber the farmers’ friend—at least the member for Maranoa might hang around for a bit; this bloke over here, Mr McGauran, looks as though he is about to jump ship to the Libs. They are part of the government, and the National Party describe themselves as the ‘farmers’ friend’. What have you done as a consequence of your failure to uphold the principles of international law and enforce UN sanctions? You have caused the new Iraqi government to penalise Australia because of the AWB. In the last 12 months alone our wheat exports to Iraq have sunk by 50 per cent. Those from America to Iraq have gone up by 300 per cent. Again, how do you blokes stare at yourselves in the mirror of a morning? You represent the wheat-growing areas of Australia and you have trashed Australia’s wheat exporting reputation.

But it gets worse. We now have a huge legal case on foot in the United States and another legal case in Australia. If these things wash through and the AWB is on the wrong side of the law, the legal and financial implications and the costs to be paid, which will potentially flow through to Australian wheat farmers, are mind-boggling indeed.

Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, how do you think this government rewards itself after this spectacular record of incompetence and gross negligence, gross cover-up and gross damage to the national interest? You would think they would hang their heads in shame, but in the last few days—and the member for Corio is going to talk about this a bit later on—we discovered that the Wheat Export Authority, set up by this government to make sure all was under control with the export of Australian wheat to markets like Iraq, has just awarded itself, approved by the agriculture minister, a 15 per cent pay rise for staff. Despite this spectacular scandal—the biggest corruption scandal in Australia’s history—what does this government do? It pats itself on the back and rewards its staff in the WEA.

Today in the parliament we sought to extract some truth from this Prime Minister about the exact state of the terms of reference. These rorted terms of reference represent the absolute core of this government’s attempted cover-up of its political and ministerial culpability in this scandal. The Prime Minister has become the cover-up king of Australian politics. This Prime Minister makes Richard Milhous Nixon look like a rank amateur. If you put it together and look at these rorted terms of reference, the misleading of the Volker inquiry and the misleading of the Americans when they sought to investigate these matters, you can only conclude that cover-up has become their credo. Across the board they have sought to prevent this information from reaching the public because it is all too politically damaging for them.

In these terms of reference, these letters patent which were released at the time the commission of inquiry was established, there is no power to determine whether ministers did their job to enforce sanctions—none whatsoever. So Mr Cole cannot make any findings on that. There is no power to determine whether the foreign minister did his job. What was that? To uphold the Customs regulations to approve each export contract with Iraq before moneys were paid. There is no power to determine whether ministers were negligent in not responding to the 33 warnings they received and no power to determine when ministers engaged in attempted cover-ups—none whatsoever.

From day one these terms of reference have been deliberately rorted by the Prime Minister. They knew what they were doing; they did not want the information to come out.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—The member for Griffith will withdraw ‘deliberately rorted’.

Mr RUDD —These terms of reference—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Griffith will withdraw ‘deliberately rorted’ or I will deal with him.

Mr RUDD —In order to facilitate the House—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Griffith will withdraw unreservedly.

Mr RUDD —I will do so, noting the fact I have already said that before.

Mr Gavan O’Connor —The National Party has rorted.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Corio will remove himself under 94(a).

The member for Corio then left the chamber.

Mr RUDD —Mr Deputy Speaker, do not take my say-so for this. It is in black and white in the correspondence I referred to today with the Prime Minister in question time. The Prime Minister stands up and says black is white and white is black. Here it is, a letter from the Cole inquiry itself saying the matters that I have just referred to here—that is, whether ministers have actually done their job—do not have any head of power whatsoever in the current terms of reference.

His second line of defence is: ‘If these terms of reference are not up to it, what can I then do? It is all up to Commissioner Cole. He can request extra powers.’ Commissioner Cole’s office says in this letter that he cannot make any request whatsoever for an expansion of his terms of reference because that would represent such a grand, significant expansion of the limited powers he was given at the very outset. The nature of the cover-up embarked upon by this government is rendered for all to see. It is stark, it is clear and it is deliberate. These rorted terms of reference constitute an affront to any sense of accountability in this place.

Where does this leave Commissioner Cole? Commissioner Cole has a responsibility under law to report to the government. He has stated he will report by the end of September. The problem we face is that he has no power to act in making determinations about whether these ministers actually did their job. He only has the power to determine whether or not criminal offences have been committed, in particular by the AWB.

It would take an extraordinary act of courage on the part of Commissioner Cole to go beyond these terms of reference and make the types of findings that need to be made concerning these ministers’ complicity and the worst corruption scandal in Australia’s history. Unless Commissioner Cole ignores the constraints deliberately placed on him by the Howard government, my prediction is that the government in all probability is going to deliver a whitewash in terms of ministerial culpability and responsibility for this scandal. That is why the terms of reference have been constructed that way.

The Cole commission of inquiry is important in the overall process of accountability, but ministers, of course, are not accountable to it. This parliament is not a source of accountability, because each time we ask a question they say it is being handled by the Cole inquiry, but the Cole inquiry is not handling it. The Senate estimates have been shut down so they cannot deal with any question concerning the wheat for weapons scandal, and no Senate inquiry can sustain itself to investigate these matters of accountability.

This is a scandal of the first order of magnitude. As a member of this parliament, I cannot understand how ministers can stand at this dispatch box and seek to exonerate themselves of responsibility for the damage they have done to the good name of this country, to the interests of our hardworking wheat farmers and to those who have depended on Australia’s good and sound international reputation. They stand condemned. (Time expired)