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Thursday, 16 February 2006
Page: 100

Mrs ELLIOT (4:30 PM) —I rise to speak today in relation to the ‘wheat for weapons’ scandal. As the AWB scandal unfolds, despite the government’s best efforts to thwart this process, we are seeing repeatedly how the Howard government is failing Australians. As each scandalous detail is revealed, it is becoming clear how the Prime Minister and his ministers are motivated not by the national interest but purely by self-interest. In particular, this scandal, if nothing else, serves to highlight the shameless betrayal of our wheat farmers and regional Australia by this government.

Regardless of the fact that we cannot get a straight answer from the government about how Australia is now in the middle of this scandal, the result of it is indeed unequivocal. Iraq has now suspended all wheat exports from Australia. Australian wheat farmers—hardworking families who are already doing it tough on the land—will now suffer directly because of the actions of this government.

Here we have National Party cabinet ministers who are smack bang in the middle of this $300 million ‘wheat for weapons’ scandal. At the very best, they could be accused of incompetence and neglect; at worst, they are at the centre of appalling deception and cover-up. Day after day, like pulling teeth, we find that this arrogant government has been instrumental in propping up a culture of cover-up and has consistently turned a blind eye to repeated warnings that AWB was involved in paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein.

In fact, the government has had no fewer than 14 separate warnings that AWB was paying bribes and kickbacks to the Iraqi regime. It has repeatedly ignored warnings from the United Nations, Canada and wheat farmers in Victoria. So many warnings have been ignored. If this government and, in particular, National Party cabinet ministers had done their jobs properly and investigated these warnings, we would not be in this dire situation today.

What is the situation that we are in today? Our international reputation has been tarnished, our position as a trading nation has been undermined and the livelihoods of our wheat farmers are seriously at risk. Despite this situation, repeatedly all we have seen from this arrogant government is a demonstration of its utter contempt for the people of Australia by its refusal to answer the most basic questions about this scandal—questions that have been put to it in parliament.

Last year, government ministers told this parliament that the government had assisted the Volcker inquiry into the oil for food scandal to the fullest extent and that it had provided all available information. We now know that this was completely untrue. It has become clear that the government’s own Wheat Export Authority was not forthcoming with all the information to that inquiry. We also now note that the Volcker inquiry had no access to electronic files held in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. But the truly frightening question now is: how much more is there to find out? Why aren’t there extended terms of reference for the Cole inquiry? How much more has to be revealed? How deep does this cover-up go?

The Howard government, for once, should stop serving its own interests and do the right thing by Australians. In particular, National Party MPs should stand up and do the right thing by regional Australians—because it is regional Australia that will suffer from this scandal. As an MP from a regional electorate, I am acutely aware of how the National Party has continued to let down the people of rural and regional Australia. I am listening to the anger that is growing in regional Australia about how its needs are being forgotten by a party that is too busy dancing to the tune of the Liberal Party to represent properly the people who elected it to this place.

Australian farmers, who traditionally form the basis of the National Party’s heartlands, are scratching their heads and wondering what happened to the party that once claimed to represent them. The National Party sold out the bush when it refused to fix Telstra and, instead, supported the cutting of services to regional Australia so that the telco could be fattened up for sale. It also sold out Australian families by supporting the Howard government’s attack on our industrial relations system. This AWB scandal must truly be the last straw for farmers, who have been left hung out to dry by a diminishing and irrelevant National Party, which is bereft of principles, ideas and backbone.

What we are witnessing here—apart from an arrogant government which is drunk on unlimited power—is the final demise of the National Party. National Party cabinet ministers are responsible for damaging the interests of Australia’s hardworking wheat farmers and wheat exporters. They have failed repeatedly to respond to warnings about this scandal. I call on National Party MPs here to stop focusing on their internal fighting with their coalition partners and to start focusing on their constituents. I call on them to have the guts to stand up in this House, take responsibility for their actions and show regional Australia the respect that it demands and deserves. With the inaction that we are now seeing from these National Party members, how much longer will this scandal continue? How much longer will the government fail to take responsibility for its actions in relation to this? It is time for the National Party and Nationals MPs here to start standing up for their constituents—because this scandal is directly affecting their constituents. (Time expired)