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Minister restricts questions at Senate estimates about AWB and Iraq oil-for-food inquiry; Question time covers UN oil-for-food program in Iraq.

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Monday 13 February 2006

Opposition is angry over the limit on questions at Senate estimates about AWB and Iraqi oil-for-food scandal; excerpts from question time about Iraq i oil-for-food scandal


MARK COLVIN: The Federal Government infuriated the Opposition today with the decision to prevent public servants from answering any questions at a Senate Estimates inquiry about the monopoly wheat exporter AWB and its bribes to Sadd am Hussein. 


The Government argues it'd be wrong to allow such questioning while the Cole Inquiry's looking at the AWB's dealings, but Labor alleges a despicable cover-up aimed at avoiding accountability. 


As it launched into another week in Parliament on the attack over the AWB affair, the Opposition produced a 2003 report from the US Government warning of kickbacks and over-payments in the oil for food program. 


It went to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, a body on which Australia was represented, and the report specifically mentioned AWB. 


From Canberra, Peta Donald reports. 


PETA DONALD: The leader of Government Business in the Senate has sat for hours today, coolly enduring the wrath of Labor senators, including John Faulkner. 


NICK MINCHIN: Your idle threats really are quite childish. We're not going to… 


LABOR SENATOR: I'll tell you what, I'll hold… 


SPEAKER: Let the Minister finish. 


NICK MINCHIN: …engage in some sort of, you know, response to your witch hunt. 


JOHN FAULKNER: Let me assure you that asking reasonable questions about this sort of departmental process has never been interpreted before by ministers at the table as a witch hunt. Latest…  


I don't ever recall anyone suggesting that such questions, which to my mind are pretty straightforward, process questions about how a department works and operates, to interpret that as a witch hunt is, I think, a pretty clear indication of how guilty you are. How guilty you are. 


PETA DONALD: The Opposition had been looking forward to a chance to grill officials in the Prime Minister's Department about what they knew of AWB's secret payments to Saddam Hussein, and what they might have told their political masters. 


So when Senator Minchin announced no questions on AWB would be answered while the Cole Inquiry is underway, there was furious response. 


When it came to Question Time in the Lower House, Opposition leader Kim Beazley took up the case. 


KIM BEAZLEY: Prime Minister, isn't this arrogant abuse of power all about protecting the Prime Minister and the five ministers now embroiled in the wheat-for-weapons scandal? 


What do you have to hide, Prime Minister? 




SPEAKER: The Honourable the Prime Minister. 


JOHN HOWARD: Mr Speaker, I can assure the Leader of the Opposition that if I had anything to hide I wouldn't have established the royal commission. 


(Sound of MPs in disagreement) 


It's as simple as that, Mr Speaker. 


PETA DONALD: Labor moved on, producing a report written in 2003 from the US Government to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. 


It names AWB as a company potentially involved in over-pricing in its contracts to sell wheat to Iraq. 


The Opposition's Kevin Rudd fixed the Trade Minister Mark Vaile in his sights. 


KEVIN RUDD: Minister, given that the US Defence Department's report was addressed to the Coalition Provisional Authority… 


(Sound of disagreement) 


… which had Australian Government representatives at a senior level, and given that it referred to the AWB by name and requested immediate action from the Coalition Provisional Authority, does the Minister expect this Parliament to believe that the Government was not aware of this report? 


SPEAKER: The Honourable the Deputy Prime Minister. 


(Sound of disagreement) 


MARK VAILE: Mr Speaker, the Member the Griffith clearly indicates the report was to the CPA. The CPA has acted, the UN has acted and… 


(Sound of noisy disagreement) 


… the Australian Government has acted by establishing the most far-reaching inquiry of any Government… 


SPEAKER: Order! Order! 


MARK VAILE: … that had a business involved in the oil for food program. 


PETA DONALD: Mr Rudd persisted. 


KEVIN RUDD: Is it not a fact that by turning a blind eye to this report that the AWB's corrupt contracts with Iraq continued to run for another 12 months after the September 2003 warning? 


(Sound of debate amongst politicians) 


SPEAKER: Order! I call the Deputy Prime Minister. 


(Sound of MPs saying: "No, no.") 


MARK VAILE: Mr Speaker, the Government didn't turn a blind eye to anything. 




(Sound of MPs disagreeing) 


PETA DONALD: Back before the Estimates Committee, Senator Nick Minchin was batting away Labor claims, backed by the advice from the Clerk of the Senate, that the silence imposed on public servants is unprecedented. 


JOHN FAULKNER: Why was a cover-up appropriate for this royal commission and not for the other recent ones that I've just mentioned? 


NICK MINCHIN: Well, you might just as well ask why a cover-up of Coronation Hill was appropriate for your Government in 1989. 


LABOR SENATOR: Well, I'm asking you… 


NICK MINCHIN: That's how stupid it is. 


JOHN FAULKNER: But you could have asked those questions at the time and it's now your turn to answer questions and it's legitimate for us to ask. 


LABOR SENATOR: What's become… why has past practice suddenly… 


NICK MINCHIN: I told you the Government has not made any general decision with regard to Estimates questions that occur at the time of royal commissions. We will deal with each case on its merits. 


MARK COLVIN: Senator Nick Minchin ending Peta Donald's report.