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Thursday, 11 October 2012
Page: 12062

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (Wills) (12:18): I commenced this speech on the Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill 2012 in the House over a month ago, on 10 September, so I feel as though I have been detained awhile, it having been interrupted by other House business. But I was obviously very persuasive in my previous remarks because, since I made them, we have seen a plethora of opposition MPs come out in support of the government's bill.

We saw the member for O'Connor say that he was going to support it and, if need be, cross the floor. We saw the member for Hume say that he was not going to vote against it and would, if necessary, abstain from the vote. Opposition Senator Alan Eggleston is in support of the government's legislation. There are others, and that is fair enough, too. This opposition always professes its love for the free market, but it is so hostile to anything the government does that its reflex position is to vote no to everything. It is time that it got a little bit positive for a change.

As I said before the interruption, the Cole inquiry was established by the Howard government in 2005 to investigate claims of bribery and corruption. The inquiry found that the claims against AWB were substantiated and that the actions taken by the Australian Wheat Board were deliberate. In 2006, the Australian Grain Exporters Association asked that the Australian Wheat Board's monopoly be disbanded and that competition be allowed in the export market. In 2008, Labor introduced a bill to deregulate the wheat export arrangements. Wheat was one of the very last federally regulated commodities in Australia. The Wheat Export Marketing Act 2008 required the Productivity Commission to conduct a review of wheat export marketing arrangements by 1 July 2010. The commission's report was tabled in the parliament in October 2010.

This bill is a welcome reform in addressing the consequences when a monopoly such as the Australian Wheat Board is allowed to operate without the rigours of competition and where an organisation which has the market cornered does business with an undemocratic and corrupt regime. Serious questions remain unanswered in the oil-for-food scandal, including why the Australian Federal Police dropped an investigation into possible criminal charges against Australian Wheat Board executives in 2009.

In a joint investigation by the Age and the ABC TV's 7.30 program, the acting coordinator of the Australian Wheat Board oil-for-food task force within the Australian Federal Police, Ross Fusca, revealed his view that the task force created to investigate those responsible for paying the kickbacks failed to reach its full potential. He said Australians deserve to know why. The Age reported:

This is one of those investigations where there has been a wilful blindness [in the handling of it] ... people need to be held accountable.

The task force was established in late 2006 and was given a $30 million budget after Commissioner Cole found 11 former Australian Wheat Board executives and a British based former BHP manager may have committed criminal offences by knowingly allowing the company to make $300 million in illicit payments to Saddam Hussein's regime in breach of United Nations sanctions.

Due to his considerable experience in leadership roles, as acknowledged in performance reviews within the Australian Federal Police, Ross Fusca was chosen to help lead the multi-agency Australian Wheat Board task force. Despite the difficulties the task force confronted around staffing and other issues, such as appropriate accommodation and access to computers, Mr Fusca believes it was building the backbone of a strong criminal case, a view that he says was endorsed in 2008 by lawyers from the Australian Federal Police and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Cole commission's senior barrister, John Agius QC, told the Age that police had plenty to work with. He said that there was a strong case that Commonwealth and perhaps Victorian state laws had been breached, that there were cases to answer and that the matter would be in court and people would be prosecuted.

Among the evidence Mr Fusca and his team discovered were emails in which some Australian Wheat Board managers discussed the need to keep the kickbacks a secret. Mr Fusca further claimed that an informant to the task force had indicated that federal government officials were aware of the kickbacks. A confidential legal opinion obtained by the Age and written by Peter Hastings QC confirms that the inquiry had a sound legal basis from which to build a criminal case. This advice was given in a memorandum to the Australian Federal Police in April 2008, more than a year after the task force was formed. It is astonishing, given the progress of the task force, that Mr Fusca says that he was offered a promotion to make the inquiry go away and was subsequently demoted from the position of coordinator after emailing his superiors seeking more staff and indicating his intention to pursue the inquiry as vigorously as he could.

The task force was shut down in August 2009 based on advice that a criminal prosecution of former managers of the Australian Wheat Board was unlikely to be successful. This advice has not been made available to the public. Of the $30 million earmarked for the task force, the Australian Federal Police spent $5.95 million, according to a letter released to the Saturday Age. Mr Fusca says that the Australian Federal Police's decision to shut down his task force was premature. I believe that the public deserves a full explanation as to why Australian law enforcement agencies have so little to show for their efforts six years after the Cole royal commission exposed one of the nation's biggest corruption scandals.

Overseas, many company executives who rorted the United Nations oil-for-food program to pay kickbacks to the regime of Saddam Hussein have been jailed or given huge fines. America moved fastest in probing misdeeds by firms. Prosecutors took seven companies to court, and millions of dollars—in Chevron's case, $30 million—were forfeited by way of fines or restitution. In April 2011, it was reported by the Telegraph in the United Kingdom that a British businessman had been 'jailed in the seventh conviction in a series of prosecutions for bribery offences under the Iraqi oil-for-food programme'. His conviction after pleading guilty was the seventh to flow from the Volcker report into the manipulation of the oil-for-food program. The prosecution team, which was led by the Serious Fraud Office, was commended for its work in bringing the cases to court. The highest-profile conviction was against engineering firm Mabey & Johnson. Three executives were convicted for their part in paying bribes. For their crimes all three received prison sentences, although one of the sentences was suspended.

In Australia we have not seen any criminal prosecution action like those which have taken place in the US and UK, despite the fact that the scale of the Australian Wheat Board payment of kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime which flouted the United Nations' oil-for-food program were greater than anything which happened in the US or the UK. I was therefore very troubled to read Mr Fusca's statements about the AFP's handling of the kickbacks issue. At stake is Australia's international reputation of upholding rigorous standards of corporate governance and accountability.

As the accountability roundtable has stated to me, the wrongful dismissal claim from Mr Fusca again focuses attention on the issue of whistleblower protection. There is strong community support for whistleblower protection legislation, and it is a matter of real regret to me that this parliament has not yet delivered it. We have been talking about it and thinking about it for a very long time, but the legislation is still awaited. Mr Fusca's case strengthens, in my view, the already strong case for whistleblower protection legislation to be brought on. The case for whistleblower protection is also strengthened, in my view, by reports that a supply-chain manager at the Reserve Bank's note-printing subsidiary, Securency, developed a strong suspicion as early as 1999 that Securency was paying bribes but felt he was too junior to speak out and feared for his job. It seems clear to me that whistleblower protection can help bring corrupt behaviour or misconduct to light, and I urge the government to introduce it sooner rather than later.

This bill is an important step forward in the government's deregulation of the wheat industry. It enjoys the support of many wheat growers—most conspicuously wheat growers from Western Australia, who have made it clear that they do not support the position that the opposition has taken and that they do not understand why the opposition is taking a different position now from the position it took back in 2008. I hope that the opposition reflects on the statements which have been made by wheat growers. I hope that the opposition reflects on the background to the legislation before the House and on the disgraceful position in which Australia was put by the breaches of the sanctions regime applied to Iraq under Saddam Hussein. I hope that the opposition, which has been divided on the issues we have been debating, reflects in a serious and mature way on this legislation and sees its way clear to supporting it. It seems to me remarkable in this day and age that we can say to wheat growers that we are going to decide who they can sell wheat to and in what circumstances. Not many wheat growers are endorsing that position. I hope that the House supports this legislation, which represents a logical extension of the decision taken by this government quite some years ago to deregulate the wheat industry.