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Transcript of press conference: Parliament House, Canberra: 27 November 2006: Cole inquiry.\n



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PRIME MINISTER

27 November 2006

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP PRESS CONFERENCE PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

Subjects: Cole inquiry.

E&OE…………………………………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER:

Well ladies and gentlemen, I’ve called this news conference to make a few comments about the Cole report. This has been from the very beginning a totally open and transparent inquiry. The Government has hidden nothing. Almost without precedent, not totally, I appeared, the Foreign Minister appeared, the Trade Minister appeared at the inquiry, we answered questions under oath and we were cross-examined and we were fully accountable with the same rules applying to us as apply to any citizen that is called to give oath before a court. We didn’t have anything to hide and the Commissioner has found that there was no wrongdoing on the part of any of my ministers. And I am particularly pleased that Mr Downer and Mr Vaile, who’ve been subjected for the last year to abuse and character assassination by members of the Labor Party, they’ve been accused of dishonesty, of negligence, of incompetence, of cover-ups, of condoning bribes and of turning a blind eye; and the Commissioner after months of exhaustive examination bringing all the forensic skills that an outstanding lawyer can bring to something like this, has not found any evidence to support those allegations.

I don’t expect it will happen, but Mr Downer and Mr Vaile are owed apologies by Mr Beazley and Mr Rudd. I am naturally, like everybody else, concerned at the findings of the inquiry in relation to the activities of the company. Because of due process

there’s nothing much more I can say except to observe that swift action will be taken to implement the recommendations regarding consideration of prosecutions of people and of certain activities. It will be for the law enforcement authorities to decide whether those prosecutions go forward, it is not for me to comment on whether or not they should occur. But at every turn this government has been transparent. No country in the world established such a transparent investigation as did this country.

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We have done more to get to the bottom of the manipulation of the Oil-for-Food Program than any government in the world and that was done because we abhor corruption in any form either here or around the world. It has not been an easy exercise but it’s an exercise that a country must go through in the wake of the sort of findings of a man such as Mr Paul Volcker. And I am very pleased that this part of the process is now over, it is for the law enforcement authorities to deal with the rest, but I again say that the Commissioner has found in the most emphatic terms imaginable that there’s no evidence of wrongdoing and I want to just read one paragraph from his introduction which I think sums up better than I possibly could what’s been involved here. And he said, and I quote AWB has cast a shadow over Australia’s reputation in international trade. That shadow has been removed. Let me repeat that, that shadow has been removed by Australia’s intolerance of inappropriate conduct in trade demonstrated by shining the bright light of this independent public inquiry on AWB’s conduct.

Now they’re not my words, they’re not Mr Downer’s words; they’re the words of the Commissioner. That shadow has been removed. And who removed it? This Government removed it by establishing this inquiry, knowing not where the inquiry would lead but except wanting it to lead to the truth and that is what in my view has happened. And this pathetic attempt by the Labor Party to suggest that the terms of reference were rorted; it is a pathetic attempt. Mr Cole himself made it very plain on two occasions. He made it plain on the 3rd of March 2006* when he said amongst other things, he said that accordingly, if during the course of my inquiry it appears to me that there might have been a breach of any Commonwealth, State or Territory Law by the Commonwealth, or any officer of the Commonwealth, related to the subject matter of the terms of reference, I will approach the Attorney-General, seeking a widening of the terms of reference to permit me to make such a finding. That is what he said. He never did approach us because no such evidence emerged.

And what has perhaps been overlooked is that in that same statement, he said something else which bears upon remarks that have been made by the Opposition. He said in paragraph eight of that statement of the 3rd of March last year, February last year, he said this: that means that this inquiry will address and make findings regarding at least the following: the role of DFAT in the process of obtaining UN approval, the knowledge of DFAT in relation to such contracts, what AWB told the Commonwealth, and in particular DFAT, relating to the Iraqi wheat contracts, and whether the Commonwealth, and particular DFAT, was informed of any knowledge AWB may be found to have had regarding payments made by AWB to Alia. Now it is beyond belief that if in the course of carrying out his investigation he came across evidence of gross negligence or dereliction of duty by DFAT, he wouldn’t, in terms of that paragraph, have reported it in his findings, yet he hasn’t.

The whole of this case that’s been mounted so maliciously against public servants as well as against my colleagues is destroyed by the findings of the Royal Commissioner. Now I don’t, have not found the last months in relation to this an easy issue, and I know my colleagues haven’t. But it’s one of those things that has to happen in the process of getting to the bottom of it.

But the report is now out in the open. You can all make your own judgements. Some will go in one direction, others will go in another. But I don’t think there’s any doubt as to what Mr Cole has found. He found no illegality by the Government. He found

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there was no turning of the blind eye by DFAT. He did not find any evidence of the wrongdoing alleged by the members of the Opposition. He did not find any knowledge on my part or on the part of my ministers in relation to the activities of AWB or a communication of those activities. And I will take account of what he said and I believe the Australian public will take account of what he said, a man acknowledged by Mr Beazley as being both competent and independent. Beyond that I don’t have anything further to say but I’ll answer your questions.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister wasn’t the Government asleep at the wheel to allow things like the Wheat Export Authority not to sufficiently monitor AWB?

PRIME MINISTER:

No we weren’t and there was no finding that we were.

JOURNALIST:

On the issue of wheat marketing….

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I have something to say about wheat marketing.

JOURNALIST:

Can you give us some details on…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I do want to say something about wheat marketing, I’m putting out a statement to this effect this afternoon. And the report of the Cole Inquiry does have clear implications for the operation of the single desk system for Australian wheat exports and in particular the role of the AWB Limited, the role of AWB International and the Wheat Export Authority in relation to wheat marketing. Now that the report has been received the Government will give urgent consideration to the future of wheat marketing operations for the export of Australian wheat and it will announce its proposals for the way forward very shortly. And in formulating that response the Government’s dominant concern will be the interests of Australian wheat growers.

JOURNALIST:

Have you spoken to Mr Tuckey about his proposed private members’ bill on that issue?

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

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JOURNALIST:

….how this report clears the Government of responsibility in accepting AWB’s assurances?

PRIME MINISTER:

Absolutely, because what the report finds is we had no evidence that we knew what was happening, that’s what it says. Now you can put any construction you like on that but we’ve had almost a year of forensic examination, we’ve had 76 days of sittings, we’ve had millions of pages, we’ve had documents provided, we’ve had questions asked, we’ve had people examined on oath and the case being alleged against the Government by the Opposition has not been established. Now you can’t be more searching and transparent than that and this nonsense about rorting the terms of reference; if Cole had found evidence of wrongdoing he’d have asked for an extension of his terms of reference, he said that. And not only did he not ask for an extension of his terms of reference, but he also said that he found no evidence of knowledge by ministers, and he particularly examined the role of DFAT, and DFAT was not found wanting by the Commissioner. Now I can but quote what he says.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister are you fully satisfied that the processes of communication between the department and the ministers is satisfactory and will there be any further tightening of that in anyway?

PRIME MINISTER:

Michael, what happened here, if you read the report, is that from the very beginning, according to the Commissioner, AWB set out to deliberately deceive and mislead. Now if you set out to deliberately mislead and deceive then for a period of time you may succeed in doing that. And one of the ironies of this whole thing is that the activities of AWB, as found by the Commissioner, may never have been fully uncovered had it not been for the downfall of Saddam Hussein because it was the downfall of Saddam Hussein that unlocked the other side of the story and made so many of these documents available. It’s an irony, I know, but it is in an irony that is not lost on me and it is an irony that ought not to be lost on any commentator.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister isn’t it that at the very least a failure on the administration of your Government that of all the evidence provided to Cole that nobody tweaked that these kickbacks were taking place?

PRIME MINISTER:

But what the evidence provided to Cole showed, Steven, was that there was an elaborate pattern of deception. I mean you even had somebody as eminent as Sir Anthony Mason, a former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia whose legal opinion was sought and gave the whole thing a clean bill of health. Why, because he hadn’t been told the full story. Now if you get a group of people who set out to

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deceive and mislead to that extent, of course you can get a result where their conduct is not discovered until much later, and what really in the end uncovered and unlocked all of this, were two things. It was the fall of Saddam Hussein and that meant the documents and the activities from the Iraqi side were unlocked, the other thing is the establishment of an inquiry under Mr Cole with the powers of a royal commission and he could demand the production of documents. And the most revealing thing to me were all of those internal documents which laid bare the pattern of deceit and conspiracy.

JOURNALIST:

What would you say Prime Minister then to people who say well look why didn’t you do more?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t believe when you are dealing with people who behave like this it is right to say we should have done more. If you don’t know and you have no reason to believe that wrongdoing is occurring, how can you do more?

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister what’s your understanding of how far away prosecutions might be?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look that’s a matter for the law enforcement authorities.

JOURNALIST:

So you have no understanding?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, well because the Commissioner has made certain findings, but as he says in his report it is not for him to decide, he’s recommending the establishment of a joint task group, I have already signed the letter to the Victorian Premier asking for his involvement and cooperation and we’ll establish task groups and we’ll get to work very quickly. But in the end it’s for the Director of Public Prosecutions and the corporate law authorities to make judgements about whether prosecutions should take

place, that is not Mr Cole’s responsibility. His responsibility was to inquire and report which he has done and in his view prosecutions should be considered but it is for others to decide whether those prosecutions go ahead. One more question.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, does this mean that you’ve said AWB’s conduct was deceptive and misleading, does this mean that it is no longer fit to hold the licence for the single desk?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well what I have said is that the report has clear implications for the conduct of wheat export marketing and the role of AWB and AWB International and the Wheat Export Authority, we are looking at that issue right now.

JOURNALIST:

Are you establishing a taskforce?

PRIME MINISTER:

We don’t need a taskforce for this...

JOURNALIST:

It would be embarrassing though wouldn’t it…

PRIME MINISTER:

We are looking at it at the moment.

JOURNALIST:

Are you going to be able to reconcile the conflicting interests within your own Party Room on the future of the single desk?

PRIME MINISTER:

Reconciliation on these issues is my, you know, other name.

JOURNALIST:

It would be embarrassing though wouldn’t it Prime Minister to go to international forums with AWB as still a question mark?

PRIME MINISTER:

Let me put it this way, Michael, this has implications for AWB, I don’t want to say any more than that. We are looking at right now, okay.

[ends]

* Statement by Commissioner Cole, 3 February 2006

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