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Wednesday, 31 May 2006
Page: 11

Mr TURNBULL (Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) (9:52 AM) —in reply—Listening to the member for Griffith last night, I heard him speak repeatedly about gross negligence and gross cover-up, and he reminded me of Lord Chancellor Baron Rolfe’s remarks in the case of Wilson v Brett (1843), when he said hundreds of years ago that ‘Gross negligence is just ordinary negligence with the addition of a vituperative epithet’. It is a great pity that the vituperation in the speeches of the member for Griffith and other opposition members was not limited only to epithets. Their speeches on the Royal Commissions Amendment Bill 2006 have not contested the substance of the legislation—they support it—but have simply been a series of vituperative claims and allegations about the subject matter of the royal commission.

The government has held the most open and the most thorough inquiry into this issue anywhere in the world. The cooperation of the government has been complete and unprecedented. The notion that the government has tried to limit the terms of reference is absurd. The government provided the commissioner with terms of reference to allow him to investigate and make findings in relation to the knowledge of the Commonwealth of alleged misconduct by Australian companies participating in the UN oil for food program. That was noted by the senior counsel, Mr John Agius, on 14 March this year.

The commissioner himself stated on 3 February that, if there was any suggestion that there had been a breach of any Australian law by the Commonwealth or its officers in relation to the terms of reference, he would seek a widening of those terms of reference to permit him to make a finding to that effect. No such request has been made. The Prime Minister has made it clear again and again, in this House and elsewhere, that the government would seriously consider any request by the commissioner for an extension of the inquiry’s terms of reference. The government is committed to enabling the inquiry to do its job, and that is reflected in the fact that it has implemented all extensions and variations to the letters patent which the commissioner has requested.

The inquiry is being conducted by the commissioner, Mr Cole. It is not being conducted by the member for Griffith or any other member of the opposition. The opposition seems to think that it can get some political mileage out of making claims about the very subject matter of the inquiry. The fact is that all of these issues are before the commissioner. The only judgment, the only conclusions and the only findings that matter will be those of the commission. The government has done everything within its power to ensure that that inquiry can be completed and can be completed thoroughly and has cooperated and supported the commissioner whenever he has sought assistance.

I will just deal with one matter which was raised by the member for Wills, who has a habit of making wild claims in this House in respect of these matters. He repeated the false claim that the government had only given a cursory reply to India’s request for assistance with an investigation into allegedly corrupt wheat sales. That statement is utterly false and the Attorney-General has asked me to advise the House that, when the Attorney-General’s Department received the request from India, it asked the Australian Federal Police to assist in responding to India’s request by obtaining witness statements and documents on a voluntary basis. The Attorney-General’s Department advised India of the Federal Police’s actions on the same day and that India would need to provide Australia with more information for the AFP to be able to investigate further using coercive powers. The Indian government did not respond. The Attorney-General’s Department wrote again to the Indian government saying that, if they wanted Australia to use search warrants or compel witnesses to give statements under the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act, they would need to provide more information. Again, the Indian government did not come back.

As the matter was not progressed by the Indian government, and as the allegations concerned Indian officials, there was no sufficient evidence to warrant a domestic investigation. If there is at some time in the future sufficient evidence concerning Australian offences, then they will be assessed in accordance with the normal Australian Federal Police processes. Australia’s response was substantial and as complete as it could be with the information that had been made available to the Australian government. As the Attorney-General has said publicly, if India wants to reopen the case, Australia stands ready, as it has done in the past, to assist the Indian government under the very longstanding arrangements for mutual assistance in matters of this kind.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Barresi)—The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Gellibrand has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.