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Tuesday, 28 November 2006
Page: 22

Senator FAULKNER (2:08 PM) —My question is directed to Senator Minchin, representing the Prime Minister. Is the minister aware that, between 1998 and 2004, there were a number of reports of unassessed intelligence highlighting that Iraq was circumventing United Nations sanctions through the use of inflated contracts under the oil for food program? Did these intelligence reports identify the use of Jordanian trucking companies as one means of bypassing the UN sanctions regime? Minister, in the light of the Cole report, will the government now seek an explanation from ONA as to why it disregarded these intelligence reports and why they were not deemed important enough to alert the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to potential consequences?

Senator MINCHIN (Leader of the Government in the Senate) —That question, if I interpreted it correctly, goes to the role of the ONA in this matter. I have not had the luxury of reading all of the Cole report—though I have some of the volumes here and I look forward to reading it all. I am not sure what reference Cole makes or does not make—

Senator Chris Evans interjecting—

Senator MINCHIN —Yes, I have lots of reports to read at the moment. As I said, I am not sure what reference Cole makes or does not make to the role of the ONA, but I am happy to come back to Senator Faulkner with information on the question of whether or not there is any reference in the Cole report to the ONA and its role in the whole matter. I am happy to do that.

In relation to the matter as a whole, I think, as Senator Faulkner would understand, the Cole inquiry has been thoroughly exhaustive. This has been a year-long, expensive, diligent and very thorough inquiry—the most thorough inquiry conducted anywhere in the world in response to the UN’s Volcker inquiry into the finding that some 2,200 companies in some 66 countries may have been involved in breaches of the oil for food program. We are the only country in the world to have instigated a fully independent and transparent inquiry into the role of the Australian company named in the Volcker report.

Senator Robert Ray interjecting—

Senator Ian Campbell interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Ray and Senator Ian Campbell, come to order.

Senator Robert Ray interjecting—

Senator Ian Campbell —Say that outside, Senator Ray, you gutless wonder!

The PRESIDENT —Senator Ian Campbell, withdraw that remark.

Senator Ian Campbell —I withdraw.

Senator MINCHIN —As I was attempting to say, Mr President, the Volcker inquiry revealed potential corruption on the part of 2,200 companies in some 66 countries around the world while Saddam Hussein was in power and in relation to the UN’s oil for food program. It was a massive indictment of that program.

In relation to the Australian companies named—most particularly, AWB—we were the only country in the world to set up a fully fledged commission of inquiry, which examined in great detail what went on and made recommendations, and we will act upon those recommendations. There is argument from the Labor Party about the terms of reference. I think those allegations are scotched by Commissioner Cole’s own statements with respect to the terms of reference—that is, that we made it clear that if he sought a widening of the terms of reference, they would be widened. We amended the terms of reference on five separate occasions in accordance with Mr Cole’s requests. If he had requested any further terms of reference changes, we would have granted them.

Commissioner Cole has vindicated the role of the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs in this matter. He has cleared them of any implications, any knowledge of these matters. He has indicted AWB for its deliberate misleading of everybody involved—the UN and the government—in relation to these matters. We are moving quickly to establish a task force, with the appropriate legislation that we will need, in the next two weeks. I presume the opposition will fully support that legislation to ensure that charges can be brought where appropriate. As to the particular role of the ONA, as I said, I am happy to get back to Senator Faulkner as to whether there is any reference to that in the report or any information I can give him.

Senator FAULKNER —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I note that the minister spent most of his answer not answering the questions that I asked. Nevertheless, I do acknowledge that the minister has given a commitment that he will come back and answer the substantive question that I asked. I would ask the minister if he could do that as quickly as possible—and certainly, I would hope, before the close of business today.

As a supplementary question, I ask that the minister also seek advice—if he is unable to answer in question time today—as to whether, given that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are key customers for ONA reporting, the government will now assess whether ONA alerted them in a full and timely manner about concerns relating to the oil for food program.

Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —Obviously I do not have information to hand on that matter. I will add it to the request that I have previously accepted.