Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Foreign Minister discusses possibility of local terrorism; AWB; and Cole inquiry.

Download PDFDownload PDF

MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON ALEXANDER DOWNER, MP TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE DATE: 1 March 2006 TITLE: 3AW - Radio Interview with Neil Mitchell NEIL MITCHELL: On the line, the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. Good morning. ALEXANDER DOWNER: Morning Neil. MITCHELL: I’d like to get to other issues in a moment, but this is, sort of, unfolding at the moment. Do you agree with the Prime Minister that a terrorist attack in Australia is highly possible? DOWNER: Well, you know, he’s making the point that it’s possible and not probable. I mean, it could happen, and I think we’ve been, I suppose, pretty much educated by the experiences of London back in July last year - and that was an attack that was completely unexpected - was locally planned. I’m not sure in the end, whether they’ve really established what links it might have had with Al Qaeda or other terrorist organisations, but it was certainly locally planned and executed. So, I mean, we just - it’s the point, isn’t it, we just can’t afford to be complacent. MITCHELL: Yes, but this does seem to be a ratcheting up of the language. Highly possible - do you agree with that? DOWNER: Well, I do. I don’t think it is a - look - I guess he hasn’t really been asked about this for a little while, which is the point. We don’t want to get complacent about it. We do need to remain, you know, alert but not alarmed. MITCHELL: Yeah, but whenever I’ve asked him, he said, well, I can’t rule it out. DOWNER: This is really getting into the semantics of it I’m not sure of, but I mean - I would make the point to you that it is always possible and I think we were very - the London bombings had a big impact on our thinking about this issue, and we put additional resources into trying to ensure that won’t happen in Australia. And, as you know, late last year we changed - in the midst of a fair bit of controversy - some of the anti-terrorism laws. MITCHELL: Do you agree that any danger to Australia is likely to come from within the Muslim community in this country? DOWNER: Well, in London, very surprisingly, it came - the attack came from British born, or many of them - I don’t think all of them, but many of them were British born. I mean, obviously, I know a lot of Muslims in Australia, and they’re as peace loving as you and Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 1

me and most of your listeners. There’s no question about that. But what we’re concerned about is extremists and fanatics, who might pick up the cudgels against Australians and you can’t rule out that people locally might do that if you’re to take note of the London experience.

MITCHELL: So, we do have these extremists and fanatics in Australia.

DOWNER: Well look, you will recall - let’s be careful how we put this - but not to defame them - but you will recall that a number of people were arrested late last year. They’ve been charged, they’re facing trial. They’ve not been convicted yet. But the fact that quite a number of people - my recollection is around twenty people were arrested - simply does illustrate the point that you can’t be too careful. But that’s not to reflect on the whole of all Australians who are Muslims obviously. I mean, most of them are perfectly peace loving people.

MITCHELL: Do you think we’re becoming too complacent?

DOWNER: I think there’s a question - we’ve got to be careful not to be. I mean, you know, we’re obviously and understandably influenced by what the, what is run in the media. The media are trying to sell newspapers and radio advertising and TV advertising, so repeating the same story over and over again is not going to be great for them. When there hasn’t been an attack, well then, they’re not going to report anything. Therefore, the public, I suppose, don’t think about it every day of the week. The point I made earlier is, as the advertising slogan goes - they should be alert, they shouldn’t be alarmed.

MITCHELL: The atmosphere in Europe has been changing - would you agree with that - around issues of multiculturalism and attitudes to the Muslim community - there’s quite a significant hardening in Europe?

DOWNER: Yes, I would. I think that’s happened…

MITCHELL: Is it happening here?

DOWNER: Less so, actually, I think, by the way. I mean, I’ve - the good person to ask, as I spend, as the Foreign Minister, a fair bit of time in Europe. I was in the Netherlands recently, and I arrived at Schiphol Airport, which is the Amsterdam airport and got into a car provided by the Dutch. It was bullet proof. And I said, well why would I need to be in a bullet proof car. They said, ‘oh, you know, you can’t be too careful here, there are a lot of extremists around here in the Netherlands’.

And I just got a sense that they were really focused on this issue, and, politically, there’s no doubt, if you look at the pattern in elections in Europe over recent times - and I mean continental Europe, not Britain - you’ll see that there has been a change in voting behaviour, and a lot of people have become more concerned about the issue of immigration.

But if I could take a moment, remember, they have had a quite different approach to immigration from us. They haven’t had controlled immigration policies like we have. They have had a completely uncontrolled approach to us … to it, and that has led to quite a strong community reaction. So their issues are a bit different from ours.

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 2

MITCHELL: So you don’t see a backlash, despite the talk of burqas and the rest?

DOWNER: No, I don’t, really. I mean, look, I don’t. I don’t want to sound naive about this but I went the other day when I was in Sydney to Lakemba, because I had a bit of time to spare. I was going out to a meeting in Blacktown and I thought, well, I’ll go via Lakemba and have a look. And I got the car to drop me off and I went for a walk for about half an hour around the main street there and into the shops and then talked to people. And you know, I didn’t get the impression that, you know, the culturally diverse Australia was in crisis, or people were violent -there were people in the street from all over the world. It was

truly a colourful scene, as you might say. But they were - to me, they - a lot of them knew who I was - they were extremely friendly.

MITCHELL: Didn’t see any burqas, did you?

DOWNER: Yes, I’m sure I did.

MITCHELL: Did you. I don’t see - I’ve ever seen one in the streets of Melbourne.

DOWNER: Oh yes. No, I did.

MITCHELL: And I certainly haven’t been confronted by them.

DOWNER: Well I mean, you see them, but - you know, it’s a free world.

MITCHELL: Good. So they can wear them when they wish (laughs). Now, I wanted - the other thing - the AWB and the bribes paid to Saddam Hussein; you’re now agreeing that you saw documents about six years ago …

DOWNER: Cables, yeah …


DOWNER: Cables.

MITCHELL: Now, isn’t this turning into - there’s no option here. It’s either a cover up or a stuff up. I mean, it either has been covered up or it hasn’t been dealt with properly.

DOWNER: Oh, obviously not covered up. In the first place because we provided all information to the Volcker inquiry and Volcker really blew the whistle in the end on AWB Ltd. We assumed, I suppose - and maybe Cole will reveal we were wrong - but we had always assumed that AWB were not paying kickbacks. They - all sorts of investigations into whether they were and …

MITCHELL: Yeah, but what investigations …

DOWNER: … they were cleared.

MITCHELL: … by you?

DOWNER: Sorry?

MITCHELL: What investigations by you?

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 3

DOWNER: Well, by my department, obviously. I mean, I personally didn’t …

MITCHELL: What did your department do when you saw these cables?

DOWNER: They did … they did a couple of things. I mean, the UN … the office of the Iraqi programs that was responsible for the administration of this oil-for-food program that we’re talking about, and we furnished them with the information to help them.

And I mean, obviously they did talk to AWB Limited about these matters, who furiously denied them. But there was more than that and, interestingly enough, the UN wasn’t just satisfied with our reports back from what AWB said, and they asked for some additional documentation, which they thought might be, to use the phrase that’s used, a smoking gun.

We had some difficulty getting that from AWB Limited but eventually did; provided them what the information. They looked at those contracts and came to the conclusion that was okay. Look, I’ll just make this point …

MITCHELL: But didn’t that ring a bell with you. The AWB wasn’t keen to cooperate. Hello, we better ask a few more questions.

DOWNER: Sure. I mean, the …

MITCHELL: That did ring a bell.

DOWNER: We di - it did. Well …

MITCHELL: So, what did you do?

DOWNER: It was the department; that’s why they insisted on getting the contracts. And they … and that’s in the end how they did get the contracts.

MITCHELL: But nobody at any stage thought, well, we’ll go beyond the UN; we’ll have a good look at this ourselves.

DOWNER: Well, I mean, they did look at it, but you’ve got to understand, I mean, we have twenty-twenty hindsight now, and that’s why we’ve set up the Cole inquiry, to find out exactly what has happened. But certainly, everybody worked on the basis … I mean, all of us worked on the basis that AWB wasn’t a corrupt company. And now that’s all been played out

in the Cole inquiry, we’ll have to see exactly.

I mean, Trevor Flugge says one thing, someone else says another. I don’t want to pre-judge what conclusions he’ll……

MITCHELL: Do you remember seeing these documents?

DOWNER: Well look, I’ve refreshed my memory, to tell you truth - not at all of them - but some of those cables would have come to my office, and I probably would have seen them, sure.

MITCHELL: Did you raise them with the Prime Minister?

DOWNER: No, I didn’t raise them with the Prime Minister. I mean, the …

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 4

MITCHELL: Why not?

DOWNER: Well, you can imagine, we get two hundred and fifty cables a day in the office. There was …

MITCHELL: What, alleging …

DOWNER: The department … well hang on, the department was acting very competently on these concerns raised by the UN and I think, look, I think having read through not just the cables that have been released, the ones that Cole has chosen not so far to release, but looking at the totality of the story and looking at it in its context, I think - no, I’m very defensive of the department here. I think they did the right thing. They provided the right information.

See, people attack the government …

MITCHELL: But I can’t understand what …

DOWNER: … but if AWB Limited weren’t telling the truth, if AWB Limited were giving false information to everybody, including the UN, then I’d have to say to you that the focus of my anger would be on AWB Limited.

MITCHELL: Well yeah, fair enough, but you say you also had a cable here from a department official saying that - raising directly allegations of an illegal kickback system, even using the words kickbacks. And you didn’t think that was important enough to raise with the Prime Minister when the major - or the Wheat Board, the wheat company, AWB, is being directly accused and …

DOWNER: Well I mean …

MITCHELL: … raised with you as having paid …

DOWNER: I don’t …

MITCHELL: … kickbacks.

DOWNER: I mean … and I … to be honest with you, that’s not quite how government works. It’s not like at high school. I mean …

MITCHELL: Well, what about the Trade Minister - did you raise it with the Trade Minister?

DOWNER: Well, the cables didn’t just go to me, obviously. They were distributed quite widely …

MITCHELL: Who else saw them?

DOWNER: … you can see from the - well, you’ll have to ask all of them. But there’s a wide …

MITCHELL: Well why, you know.

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 5

DOWNER: Well, hang on, let me try to answer one question at a time.

MITCHELL: Well, did Vaile get them, that’s the question.

DOWNER: Well you know, you’ll have to ask him whether he saw them, honestly. I mean, I - my approach to this whole thing is to be completely transparent, utterly upfront. I told the parliament in November last year, November last year, that this whole issue had arisen; it had been investigated by the department.

And look, for right or for wrong, and we don’t know yet, we’ll see what Cole says. But for right or for wrong, the department concluded, and the UN importantly, who were the main investigators, they concluded that AWB wasn’t paying kickbacks. That was the conclusion drawn. Now, maybe that conclusion was wrong; we don’t know that for sure. But maybe it was, with the benefit of hindsight, and that’s why the Cole inquiry is such a good idea to get to the heart of it.

MITCHELL: So, we could - I mean, it would seem. We had at least two ministers - yourself and the Trade Minister - getting warnings directly about - wouldn’t have been Vaile, it would have been his predecessor - getting warnings about …

DOWNER: No, I think it would have been …

MITCHELL: Would have been Vaile, would it?

DOWNER: … I think so.

MITCHELL: Well, getting direct warnings about the possibility of kickbacks and nobody was sufficiently concerned to inquire further than to handball it to the United Nations.

DOWNER: No. The United Nations was the body which was responsible for the Oil-for-Food program, not the national government. Let me try to explain, because it’s terribly complicated. Now, if you really …

MITCHELL: Well, it is complicated; that’s part of the problem here.

DOWNER: Well … but, you know …

MITCHELL: I mean, but in the end, you were sent …

DOWNER: … just talking over me is not going to help you. I’m an expert on this, I can assure you. I’ve been through all these papers.

MITCHELL: Yeah, but you’re (laughs) an expert in spin too (laughs).

DOWNER: I’m not. I mean, I’m … to tell … no. Well, that’s very unfair actually. I don’t think that many listeners would think that I was particularly a master of spin.

MITCHELL: I think you’re pretty …

DOWNER: I think I’m very transparent. And, as far as this is concerned, I’m absolutely happy for the Cole commission to go through everything my department or I knew. Look, if

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 6

AWB Limited was paying kickbacks, that is outrageous and it is against the law. And that is why we’re dealing with it.

MITCHELL: Fair enough.

DOWNER: We investigated this. We didn’t discover that they were paying kickbacks. I have heard of investigations being conducted by all sorts of people, from the police downwards, which haven’t been successful in establishing what had happened. We didn’t establish what had happened.

With the benefit of hindsight, was there something to find that we didn’t find? Well, let’s wait and see, I’m not sure. The Cole commission will establish that. But there is no attempt to try to cover anything up here. We wouldn’t have established the Cole commission if we wanted to run a cover up. We gave these cables to the Cole commission.

MITCHELL: Did … but after these issues have raised - have been raised, you’ve still sent - the people about whom they’re raised - off to Iraq to do - to work for the government.

DOWNER: Yes, because we didn’t think they were corrupt.


DOWNER: And we wouldn’t have sent them if we thought they were corrupt, you’re quite right.

MITCHELL: When did you raise it with the Prime Minister? When did you tell him …

DOWNER: Look, I can’t remember every … look, this thing about raised with the Prime Minister …

MITCHELL: No, fair enough.

DOWNER: Go and ask the Prime Minister. I mean, this is six years ago.

MITCHELL: No, no, no. But, I mean …

DOWNER: I can’t remember every conversation I had with the Prime Minister six years ago.

MITCHELL: Have you discussed these documents with him?

DOWNER: Yesterday I did, yes.

MITCHELL: In the past few days, yeah.

DOWNER: Of course.

MITCHELL: What was his reaction?

DOWNER: Well, I mean, his reaction’s the same as mine. Of course we knew that the Canadians had lodged these complaints. The UN had raised this with us; this had been investigated. But we knew this. I told the parliament this back on November the third.

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 7

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 8

MITCHELL: But he’s very much a detail man. Was he a bit grumpy that he wasn’t told six years ago?

DOWNER: Well look, I don’t know what he was told six years ago. That is the question you’ll have to put to him. I don’t - I can speak just for myself, not for Mark Vaile …


DOWNER: … the Prime Minister and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. I don’t know …

MITCHELL: Fair enough.

DOWNER: … what they all read.

MITCHELL: It is possible he was told six years ago.

DOWNER: Look, I just don’t know.

MITCHELL: Thank you for speaking with us.

DOWNER: It’s a pleasure.