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Wednesday, 31 May 2006
Page: 10

Mr RUDD (9:47 AM) —Claims by the Prime Minister and parallel claims by the Minister for Foreign Affairs that they had in fact provided full cooperation with and full documentation to the Cole inquiry as of January this year were brought fundamentally unstuck by the submission to the Cole inquiry of the Office of National Assessments. The submission by the ONA stated:

On 17 February 2006, certain Australian Foreign Intelligence Community (AFIC) agencies received notices to produce from the Inquiry into Certain Australian Companies in relation to the UN Oil-for-Food Programme (the Inquiry).

What does all that mean? It means that, as of February, the Howard government had not provided full documentation to the Cole inquiry, but the Prime Minister had assured the country and the parliament that, as of January, they had. So we had the Prime Minister and the foreign minister saying, ‘full cooperation, full documentation provided’, whereas the truth is each document which the Cole inquiry needed to do its job was having to be extracted from the government, kicking and screaming, using legal means. Voluntary cooperation has in fact been at a minimum, and this is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Evasion and the government’s pattern of cover-up in this sordid scandal has also been demonstrated in the way in which ministers themselves have provided their own statements to the Cole commission of inquiry. The trade minister appeared before the commission on 10 April. On the same day, his 15-page statement to the inquiry regarding his knowledge or otherwise of 21 cables that were addressed to him, containing concerns about the AWB’s activities in Iraq, was made public. The trade minister stated on 41 separate occasions that he either ‘had no recollection’, ‘could not remember’ or ‘could not recall’ whether he had read the warnings in question. It makes you wonder why the trade minister continues to draw a salary. On the next day, 11 April, the foreign minister had a similar lapse of memory. On 27 occasions, he said could not remember anything of the warnings that had been provided over the course of the wheat for weapons scandal.

The foreign minister and trade minister have tried to justify their sudden inability to recall such critical documents by saying they receive thousands of cables each week—but 21 cables spread over a five-year period about a $300 million wheat for weapons scandal involving a country which Australia was about to go to war with? It beggars belief that ministers negligently did not bother reading or being briefed on cables which went to the heart of the effectiveness of the sanctions program against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

All these assertions, however, came unstuck in evidence delivered to DFAT Senate estimates on 29 May, when it was revealed that since 2000 DFAT has been ‘able to formally audit the process of a cable having been received, opened and actioned’ and, in the words of DFAT officials, the department can:

record the opening of a cable, the printing of a cable, the forwarding of a cable, the export of a cable and the closing of a cable.

In other words, there is a full electronic cable log. The question we asked in here yesterday of the trade minister was: when the trade minister provided his statement to the Cole commission of inquiry on 11 April, was that statement constructed on the basis of having consulted the electronic cable log? What was the trade minister’s answer? The trade minister’s answer was no. This is a most disturbing state of affairs.

Therefore, what did the Minister for Foreign Affairs do when he presented his statement of sworn evidence to the Cole commission of inquiry? Did he consult the electronic cable log or not? These questions raise further new questions which these ministers have yet to answer, concerning the accuracy of the statements they have made not just to this parliament but to the Cole commission of inquiry itself.

Of course, when it comes to this pattern of cover-up, the core of the cover-up lies in the limited terms of reference Commissioner Cole has himself been given by Prime Minister Howard. Prime Minister Howard has run around the country saying there is a full royal commission of inquiry with full powers to do whatever that commission of inquiry wants to do. That is absolutely untrue and the Prime Minister of this country knows it full well. Prime Minister John Howard designed Commissioner Cole’s terms of reference to produce a narrow commission of inquiry, not a broad-ranging one: one which would focus almost exclusively on the AWB; one which would focus only passingly on the role of ministers. But the critical element is this: Commissioner Cole has no powers whatsoever to make determinations about whether these ministers have done their jobs under Australian domestic law. That is a power he has not been given. That is therefore an area where he cannot go when it comes to reaching his conclusions. What we have had is a pattern of negligence, a pattern of cover-up and, as a consequence of this $300 million wheat for weapons scandal, damage to Australia’s national interests. (Time expired)