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Cole terms of reference protecting Govt, repo -

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(generated from captions) Returning now to the week's big story,

the appearance of two ministers, along with the PM before Commissioner Cole

to face questions over the extent of Government knowledge of AWB's activities.

Trade Minister Mark Vaile led off Affairs to check on AWB. and said it was up to Foreign was asked about this, When Alexander Downer he in turn, said it was the UN's job oil-for-food contracts. to supervise As for the PM, the commission today well, as we've heard, he told that AWB would behave corruptly. that it had never crossed his mind was relaxed and comfortable The Government, it seems, in the face of mounting evidence to Saddam Hussein. that AWB was paying kickbacks of ministerial responsibility, So where does this leave the notion Commissioner Cole constrained and to what extent is of the matter? from getting to the heart on these questions, To help shed some light by David Marr, I've been joined tonight for the 'Sydney Morning Herald' who's been covering the hearings since day one, sketch writer for 'The Australian', and by Matt Price, the parliamentary

the toughest editorial line The newspaper that has taken on ministerial negligence. of you. Thanks for joining us. Gentlemen, welcome to both What we saw today, I think it's fair to say, hearing room, in Commissioner Cole's than a thorough interrogation was something less of prime ministerial knowledge. about the limits what was the point? So, David Marr, what was it,

came to the inquiry today Well, the point is that Howard terms of reference. protected by his own He'd written them. can investigate with Howard And all Cole and Agius

is what he knew. AWB people, Now when they're interrogating

of criminal behaviour, they're looking for signs every step of the way they're absolutely scrutinising over the years. all the things they did But the Government? and that means bureaucrats as well - All they can ask of the Government - is what did you know? Now that's not a simple question, to go deep into the behaviour but it doesn't give them the leeway was running up this gigantic scam. of all those years when AWB as comfortable as he did? So that explains why the PM looked been questioned Well, I think he could still have a lot more toughly. for detail. Of course, we're all hungry We want to know a great deal more. the incongruity of his position Agius did map out pretty clearly when Howard says for AWB that the issue of culpability only came onto his radar in 2005, you start wondering, well, did nothing filter up out of Baghdad from 2003 from the reports coming that AWB had been paying kickbacks? Apparently not. Matt Price, what about you? by the questioning this morning? Were you unsurprised No, I was unsurprised over the last few days because you just got the feeling a fairly easy time for it. that the ministers were going to get that Howard - I was surprised, though, sort of came in, Mark Vaile on the first day

the big media crew out the front ran the gauntlet of and got sort of accosted. through a back door. Next day Alexander Downer came in his office about 300m or 400m, But Howard today walked from waving to the crowd. It was a sort of triumphal march with all the security he has - and wound up - he got a fairly clear run and I thought he sailed through it. The most damaging image I think were expressly stopped was when the lawyers for AWB by Commissioner Cole

from cross-examining. Most of them didn't bother there's not much point because, as David said, are so narrow. because the terms of reference to Commissioner Cole, But a couple of them ventured who's a fearsome figure, a hell of a hard time and he gave them

to question him and they still tried and in the end didn't.

would have been thinking, And I'm sure the PM I'll bat this off easily." "I hope he let's me because But he didn't the image or the criticism and I just thought that cemented is very, very restricted. that the questioning of ministers

Yes, David, what about that?

Well, this is - fireproofing the PM And is Commissioner Cole actually and, to a certain extent, the other ministers who appeared this week? From the start with the inquiry

on the part of the Commissioner you could see this special alertness came to be mentioned. when the Government were breaking When those first stories

that came back to Canberra about the cables where nothing particularly happened of people were being alerted, and yet it was clear that all sorts Cole was fiercely questioning, to question people. he would fiercely intervene that's testing people's recollection Now you could say that the Government is absolutely firm. to make sure that criticism of But there was also this sense very far here. that we were not going to stray he made this public announcement And that's why after a few weeks wider terms of reference saying, "I don't need at the knowledge of the Government." "because I do have to look that looked pretty good. And for a while,

an inquiry that allowed him to do. And then you realised how limited And there was always this sense that an executive from AWB the Department of Foreign Affairs and an executive from were not going to be treated of rigorous scepticism with the same kind of the two were different. because the questions being asked There was a cracking moment attempted to be cross-examined when Downer was being - and they did allow a few questions, a very strict time limit. but it was under And one of the lawyers said, "We started to go into areas was very wary about." "that Commissioner Cole basically that, you're wasting our time." And Commissioner Cole said, "Stop "Well, hang on," And the lawyer said, it was Lindberg's lawyer who said, for four days." "My client was cross-examined had 10 minutes from one lawyer I think Alexander Downer and 15 minutes from the other.

And there was a palpable feeling - a lot longer than I - and David has been there of frustration but a palpable feeling for people other than politicians. among many of the the counsels I don't think you can say the Commissioner was protecting them so much as he was operating within the strict terms of reference. It's no use, really -

he's got a limited amount of time and definitely a limited amount of patience. He wasn't going to let the hares run. He probably could have done it a little gentler and maybe let it go a little more widely. He definitely was not going to let it happen. 'Protect' is the wrong word. I think he was just operating - But it was frustrating for us. Oh, incredibly. Because there's this guy, John Agius, the counsel assisting - he's this huge forensic engine but he wasn't running and the fun we could have had if he had just put down that blunt head of his and gone the PM in the way he's gone - Equally, though, we saw Terry Forrest get up, who's acting on behalf of two of the AWB executives, in the agonisingly slow deferential manner ask to be able to put questions to the PM. Yes, terrible, wasn't it? This was shut down. Commissioner Cole would be excruciatingly conscious here of an accusation of bias? I think he would be indifferent to it

because his answer would be, "Terms of reference, can't go there." Like, as Matt was saying, this amazing moment the other day when Downer was being asked a question we all want him to answer: Did he really think back in 2001, one phone call from one of his diplomats to AWB and AWB said, "Oh, those Canadian complaints are bullshit." That one phone call was really enough? Was it really enough, Mr Downer? Do you really approve of that as a high-level inquiry into possible wrongdoing? And that's when the whole thing just shut, because Downer's stupidity does not come within the terms of reference. It was very interesting, though, Mark Vaile who is by far - well comfortably the least eloquent.

If he set the bar, he essentially buried the performance bar for the rest of them. They couldn't have done any worse. He's not an eloquent fellow and didn't answer very convincingly. He definitely got a tougher grilling from Agius. He got asked some tough questions. At one stage after he'd done a press release appraising the AWB, the question was put to him, "When you're putting out a press release on behalf of yourself, "you're putting your name to it, "you're also putting the country's reputation to it." Which is a good question. Very good question. Got him a little bit awkward and I thought, my sense of it was OK, this is not going to be as easy as some of the ministers think. That same question could have been done to the PM and to Alexander Downer. But that kind of questioning - and that was just one example that I can quickly remember - and there was a lot more for Mr Vaile, that kind of disappeared. Now, I suspect his very ordinary performance contributed to that. Everyone got a little bit frustrated with the "I don't recalls" and the blather which, when you've seen him in Parliament, wasn't extraordinary,

it's just that his schtick. I suspect at the end of the week he's thinking, "Dear me, I wish I wasn't first." Of course, we also had the prime ministerial definition to that today,

No longer "I don't recall", but "Not necessarily". There was, as far as I can tell, only one moment when the PM said, "I can't recall," but it was actually on a point where he had every right not to recall. Exactly, it was a genuine "I can't recall", "to the best of my belief". Let's look at what the PM did say. He was referred to the National Press Club address that he made in March of 2003 where, of course, he lambasted Saddam Hussein for his flouting of the UN Oil-for-Food Program but said, of course, that he made no link at that time with any possible Australian company. So who was he flouting it with? This is the question - was this a reasonable defence that he said, "Absolutely not,"

when he said did not make any link with AWB. Maxine, you've got to understand what those three ministers were there in the room for this week. They were all there to prove that they were duped. That's what they have to do, because otherwise they were conniving. There are only two choices in all of this. The stupider they look, the better for the Government. They're the ground rules of the interrogation this week. And I think that's reasonable, David. Well, if they look stupid, how can they be running the Government? That's a different issue, of course. But for the tactics of this week it doesn't matter whether Howard is particularly convincing on the point that a few days before we went to war he placed amongst the important reasons for entering that war the flouting by Saddam Hussein of the Oil-for-Food Program. Hang on, what do you mean when you say, "He doesn't have to be convincing?" I would prefer him to be convincing but I'm not convinced by his notion that he left it to his scriptwriter to see if that point was true.

I think you're being harsh. Never looked at the material himself and just once again, with so many of the crises that seem to engulf his office, it's always somebody else doing the checking and not him. And it's just balderdash, really. I think they were duped. Most of the evidence is that they were duped. The connivance, certainly the direct connivance, it doesn't bear scrutiny, I think, or bear thinking about. I do think you have to go back to when he made that speech. They were going to go to war, in my opinion. They were piling up the evidence and that paragraph about the Oil-for-Food Program would have been in there with all the weapons of mass destruction stuff. Howard said today - and I think this essentially explains everything. He said today, "Listen, I had no qualms about thinking the worst of Iraq "and I believed everything I half-heard and read and saw "and I didn't need convincing "that he was shonky and corrupt on the oil-for-food." And then he said, when asked, "Well, I thought well of AWB. "I had no concept that they would be corrupt." Fast-forward then to after the ouster of Saddam Hussein and, of course, that cable comes through from the US Army officer working for the Coalition Provisional Authority, makes it clear what the kickback program was all about. Oh, absolutely. And still the PM says, "He wouldn't necessarily have seen that." This is what got me.

This is what absolutely staggered me is that Downer, in particular, and DFAT - and David knows the chain much better than I -

but all along these cables, this intelligence, "Oh, it's been missed, it's gone crazily wrong." Yet, the day before when Downer was giving evidence, he'd sort of sailed through reasonably well and at the end he gave this triumphal tribute to his department. I think everyone in Australia now courtesy of the massive coverage accepts that this has been a massive cock-up. But you're listening to this mob and DFAT are the most professional, "No, we wouldn't have done anything wrong," and "With hindsight..." That just staggers me. I can't work it out. Let me ask you to make this connection. David, I'll put this question to you. At the same time, here we've got Matt saying now it's a cock-up. But what is very odd, at the same time you apparently have indifference in Canberra - and this is as I say June of 2003, after the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Over in Washington you've got Australia's ambassador Michael Thorley actively barracking on behalf of AWB. Now, this is out of patriotism or he simply refuses to ask any questions about AWB? And what's more - Aren't these two things at odds? What's more, the talking points that the ambassador has when he goes in to confront people in Washington. The talking points are prepared by AWB and - Everything was prepared by AWB. Thorley was quite successful We didn't - AWB didn't get the grief We had friends in Washington. We had friends in Washington. the grief in Washington We didn't - AWB didn't get that it deserved to get there. because there was some protection couldn't deal with What the Australian Government was the American wheat lobby and the American wheat lobby, over in Baghdad now, together with Ahmed Chalabi,

between them Oil-for-Food Program, were determined to prove that the out of, which the Americans had been locked was rotten. and that's what we couldn't stop. And they were right, able to use the diplomats quite well And even though the Government was to keep a lid on it, in the United States what finally blew the lid of the wheat lobby and the neocons was that coalition and, in particular, in our huge narrative of this as we explain Marian Wilkinson and I over this weekend. in the 'Sydney Morning Herald' David, yes. Which we will all eagerly read, The particular tipping point no weapons of mass destruction, was when they discovered there was had to find some other target because the neocons then they really went for and that's when

under oil-for-food. the shonky deals And it was from that point no longer ultimately protect AWB, that the Australian Government could for at least another year. though God knows they tried

I want to come back, Matt Price, Just in the time we've got left

of this. I suppose the political damage distinction The PM made an interesting after the hearings today at his press conference is one thing, and that is the judicial process it's up to the Parliament, but as he said indeed the fourth estate, competence or otherwise. to make the case about ministerial

That being the case, process leaves Alexander Downer, where do you think this whole in particular? it's your newspaper And, of course, successive editorials against him? that has launched some pretty savage Well I think they'll end up - really seriously damaging findings I can't see Cole making any which would make the PM say, Vaile, Downer, you're gone." "Well open-and-shut case - I just can't see it. I think they'll survive. I think it's been damaging. I think you're right - the 'Sydney Morning Herald', the ABC, the 'Australian', of the news media the pointy end, the broadsheet end for five or six months. has been on this story to being a garage band But this week it's been akin to buy your record. and suddenly everybody wants week for the Government. This has been a potentially damaging and getting not damaged by anything We're so used to them being teflon and, you know, Labor helps that. Let me ask you this, though - after the fuss of this week passes, some sober assessment, if you like, do you think there's going to be performance particularly of Alexander Downer's among his own party colleagues any chances he has and it may in fact cruel of future advancement of Treasury, whether it's in the role deputy prime ministership? No, I don't think so at all. eagerly awaited. I think Cole's report will be There'll be another bout of dissection everywhere of two or three days

the tabloids and the talkback radio and in the popular media, current affairs. and maybe the commercial come out of this, But I think Downer will as other ministers have in the past, and sail on. As long as Howard thinks that - to lose Downer - I mean, he's not going he's his best friend in Government. he's one of his - Minister we've ever had, He regards him as the best Foreign if you believe the PM, in his department and he accepts that everybody has done a great job. and I'm sure he thinks DFAT It defies belief. I would have thought, A little contrition, from somebody, somewhere might help. But it's not going to come. So I could be proved wrong. and maybe Mr Downer will be wounded. Maybe the report will be damaging But I just can't see it. and a brief one if you would? Final word, David Marr, that we live in a country Oh, I think we have to understand

do worse than this to be sacked. where a minister has got to our political system at the moment. That's the reality of Alright, gentlemen - and on the eve of Easter, for your time tonight I do thank you.

David Marr, Matt Price, Thanks. thanks very much. for joining us tonight,

Happy Easter.