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Shadow Minister says latest evidence to Cole inquiry shows the Government knew AWB was involved in Iraq oil-for-food scandal; Foreign Minister denies it; discusses Abu Bakar Bashir; and allegations Israelis did not bomb Red Cross vehicle in Lebanon.



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It may not have been checked against the broadcast or in an y other way. Freedom from error, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.

 

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AM

 

Wednesday 30 August 2006

Shadow Minister says latest evidence to Cole inquiry shows the Government knew AWB was involved in Iraq oil-for-food scandal; Foreign Minister denies it; discusses Abu Bakar Bashir; and allegations Israelis did not bomb Red Cross vehicle in Lebanon

 

TONY EASTLEY: Labor says that the latest evidence to the Cole Inquiry reveals that the Federal Government definitely knew that AWB was involved in the Iraq Oil-for-Food sc andal. The Government insists it didn't know anything about it.  

 

Here's the Opposition Foreign Affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd.  

 

KEVIN RUDD: The Government had an Iraq task force in the middle of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Mr Downer's department. 

 

That task force was responsible for the coordination of the Government's entire policy on Iraq. What these revelations show us is, in the middle of 2004, that Iraq task force was briefed by an Australian officer returning from Baghdad, telling them everything about the AWB's problems with the wheat-for-weapons scandal, and in particular says, and I quote, "AWB limited exposure, association with service fee across the board, 10 to 30 per cent." 

 

Before this, Mr Downer has received 21 sets of cabled warnings, together with Mr Vaile and some of them to the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, as well. All of those were ignored. The Government turned a blind eye.  

 

But Mr Downer's excuse up until now is that some of those warnings came from American and Canadian sources who had a conflict of interest with the interest of the Australian wheat industry. That's blown out of the water as well by this new material, because this is an Australian officer coming back from Baghdad, having worked directly for Mr Bremer, who ran the Coalition provisional authority and an Australian warning from the Australian Iraq task force that there was something really rotten with the AWB's activities.  

 

Mr Downer again turned a blind eye, but more worryingly for Australia, then turned around and chose to mislead the Americans in their Congressional inquiry.  

 

 

TONY EASTLEY: Labor's Kevin Rudd there.  

 

Joining us now by telephone is the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer. 

 

Good morning, Mr Downer.  

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Good morning.  

 

TONY EASTLEY: We've just heard from Kevin Rudd there and if I can quote from the front page from this morning's Australian newspaper, it says, "The Cole inquiry has been given nine pages of handwritten notes by a senior foreign affairs official that proves beyond doubt that the Howard Government was warned two years ago that AWB was caught in the Iraq Oil-for-Food scandal". 

 

These notes were written by a DFAT diplomat by the name of John Quinn and the notes were taken in 2004 when he was head of your Government's Iraq task force. What's your response to that? 

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, first of all, this is absolutely nothing new. This is material that's been given to the Cole inquiry by the Government. Mr Quinn months ago made a statutory declaration to the Cole inquiry, including about this meeting. I wasn't of course involved with the meeting or familiar with the meeting. So that's the first point I make and it's simply a massive beat-up.  

 

The second thing is, this is 2004. This is actually … this is a meeting that took place after the Volker inquiry into the Oil-for-Food Program and the rorting of the Oil-for-Food Program had been established. 

 

The department sent me a minute, which was a subject of much media contention and debate back in I think about March or April of this year, on which I answered questions in the Cole Commission in March of 2004, so months before this meeting took place, months before this meeting took place, in which they expressed some concern about the possibility of AWB being involved in the Volker inquiry and questions about its contracts... 

 

TONY EASTLEY: But... 

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: ... So that's all on the public record. So to pretend that there's something new or exciting or that this is news, if I may say so, it's a desperate Opposition.  

 

TONY EASTLEY: Nevertheless, did John Quinn's notes, which were made for your department at a taskforce set up by your department, did his notes ever get to you? 

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: No, of course not. Those notes didn't, well I mean they were on the website. I mean, they've gone to the Cole inquiry but... 

 

TONY EASTLEY: No, but at the time? 

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: ... It's neither here nor there because I had been informed in March of 2004 in the context of the establishment of the Volker inquiry about the possibility of AWB being embroiled in the rorting of the Oil-for-Food program. I mean it's just, and all of this is, I mean people who are interested in this need to look at what was said in the Cole inquiry back in April, what documents have been tabled there.  

 

But the other thing is Mr Quinn has made a supplementary statement to the Cole inquiry about this meeting, and people can look that up on the website, and this sort of childish attempt to try to establish the Government knew AWB was involved in rorts, this is a year, more than a year after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime and well after the end of the whole program... 

 

TONY EASTLEY: If it can't be taken in the context of news, as you say though, doesn't it go towards the fact that your department is slightly dysfunctional in that this information wasn't finding its way to those people who should know about it?  

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: No, it's not dysfunctional at all. It's the most excellent department. I mean the suggestion by Mr Rudd and the implication of Mr Rudd that ordinary officers of the department and people such as John Quinn, that these people are somehow involved in cover-ups or corruption is absolutely preposterous.  

 

People in my department have explained at great length before an inquiry which was set up by the Government to expose what had gone on, not to cover up what was going on. People from my department have explained at great length exactly what their role was, exactly what the state of their knowledge was and exactly what they've done.  

 

And to the suggest that people in my department have been perjuring themselves before the Cole Commission is absolutely preposterous and outrageous, and people like Mr Rudd should apologise for those sorts of implicit allegations.  

 

TONY EASTLEY: If I can take you to another issue. As I understand it, I think it was you and the Prime Minister both asked the President of Indonesia and/or its Government to limit the movements of Abu Bakar Bashir, but he's told the ABC there are currently no restrictions on his travel. Are you happy with the way it's been handled? 

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, look, there are restrictions under the United Nations Security Council resolution, I think it's 1267 on his travel internationally.  

 

TONY EASTLEY: But is anyone taking care of those? 

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: ... not endeavour to travel internationally. If he endeavoured to travel we'd see. He certainly hasn't left Indonesia at all since he was released from jail. I would be very surprised if the Indonesians allowed him to travel, bearing in mind that resolution.  

 

But as you, I think you'd be aware, this issue is a sensitive one about Abu Bakar Bashir in Indonesia. The Indonesians don't choose to make public statements about measures they have taken to deal with the issue of Abu Bakar Bashir. But I can only put it to you this way, because we've had a lot of conversations with them about him, that we're happy with the way the Indonesian Government is approaching that issue.  

 

TONY EASTLEY: You won't ask them to take tougher action against him? 

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, I'm not going into what they may be doing or may not be doing, suffice it to say I've been happy with the steps they've taken, and the proof of this is that Abu Bakar Bashir hasn't left Indonesia at all.  

 

TONY EASTLEY: So you're happy, completely happy with the fact that the way they're handling it and what he's being allowed to say at the moment? 

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, it's a free country. He can say what he likes, and of course some of the comments that he made yesterday were fairly preposterous. I don't think anyone would much believe anything he was saying though about CIA plots to blow up nightclubs in Bali and so on. 

 

But, look, yes I am happy with the way the Indonesians have handled it, let me put it that way. I mean it's a sensitive issue. I don't want to disturb the way we've been handling this in the bilateral relationship, but I think they've done a good job.  

 

TONY EASTLEY: To the coverage of the war in Lebanon. We're going around the globe at the moment. But you were quoted as telling a conference that the media had fallen for a hoax when it reported that Israel had bombed a Red Cross vehicle in Lebanon.  

 

What did you base that assertion on? 

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, I've had a look and some of my staff have had a look at the photographs of an ambulance which, well originally it was alleged it had been hit with a missile, and obviously if an ambulance had been hit with a missile it would have been blown to bits.  

 

TONY EASTLEY: So you definitely think it was a hoax?  

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well it certainly wasn't true that it was hit with a missile. The ambulance would have been decimated if it had been hit with a missile. So, in that sense the claim that it was hit with a missile was wrong.  

 

Now, I notice that new claims are being made about well maybe there was a drone and something was shot out of a drone. Maybe it wasn't a missile. Well, that's a different argument of course.  

 

But, look, my broader point is this, without sort of getting bogged down what we interpret from the photographs, but that's my interpretation, but I think my broader point is that the way that, it's not so much the Australian media, the international media covered the war in southern Lebanon was very distinctly anti-Israeli, in my view. I thought it was quite biased.  

 

I think in Australia perhaps the coverage was a bit more balanced, but it was very anti-Israeli, and on one occasion a Reuters reporter had to be sacked for doctoring photographs.  

 

TONY EASTLEY: But if I can take you back to the Red Cross vehicle, your interpretation is that it was a hoax, yet the Red Cross, the Red Cross official in Lebanon is saying it did happen. 

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, I mean, I've looked at the photograph as it was portrayed to me at the time, and I must admit I was very surprised at the way the television coverage in particular reported it, international television coverage reported it.  

 

It was reported at the time that a missile had struck this, had been a… deliberately struck this ambulance, and I looked at the photographs and I can't see that a missile could have possibly hit an ambulance, that particular ambulance, and for the Israelis to be deliberately targeting an ambulance with a missile, and then I see the ambulance is not decimated and people survived, it seemed to me that that was a very curious interpretation of a missile... 

 

TONY EASTLEY: It may have been like some, much of the ordinance, it didn't actually explode when it pierced the vehicle. So you still stand by what you said? 

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Yes, sure.  

 

TONY EASTLEY: Okay. The Foreign Minister Alexander Downer joining us this morning on AM live, thank you.