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What action will Downer take over departmental failures outlined by Four Corners?



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MEDIA RELEASE

AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY

Kelvin Thomson MP

Shadow Minister for Public Accountability

36/06

18 April 2006

What action will Downer take over departmental failures outlined by Four Corners?

Labor’s Shadow Minister for Public Accountability Kelvin Thomson has demanded Alexander Downer take action to address the bureaucratic bungling in his Department identified by the Four Corners AWB story “Cash Crop”.

Last night’s program set out a litany of failures by Alexander Downer’s staff which made Australia party to a conspiracy by Saddam Hussein to take money from the mouths of his own starving men, women and children and spend it on himself and acquiring weapons instead.

Those failures included:-

• Pitiful response to the request by UN Chief Customs Officer Felicity Johnston in 1999 for Australia to investigate allegations that AWB was paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein. • Failure to notice the dramatic escalation in trucking fees being paid to Alia - from US $12 per tonne in July 2000 to US$44.50 per tonne in November 2000 and US$55 per tonne in

December 2002; this when petrol in Iraq was 10 cents per gallon and the real cost of inland transportation as estimated by expert Charles Duelfer was less than $6 per tonne. • Failure to be briefed about or follow up intelligence reports concerning kickbacks. • Failure to comment on or investigate the front page of the New York Times on March 7

2001, headed “Iraq is running pay-off racket, UN aides say”, which specifically mentioned wheat. • Failure of Australian diplomats in Middle East to pick up common knowledge about the use of Alia to circumvent UN sanctions.

The question is, faced with such monumental failures, what action does Minister Downer now intend to take about his Department? If nothing, we have on our hands a repeat of the “children overboard” and “weapons of mass destruction” debacles. Ministers say “we were misled by our

advisers”, but take no action to penalise them.

The only rational conclusion from such Ministerial inaction is the Ministers are not sincere. Either Ministers did know more than they’re letting on, and won’t punish advisers for fear of having the whistle blown regarding their real state of knowledge, or they approve of not being advised, and want to maintain the system of Ministerial ignorance and plausible denial.

If Ministerial Responsibility and public accountability are to mean anything in this country, this system must be cracked open. The public can no longer be expected to tolerate such miserably low standards of Ministerial performance.

Ends

Melbourne 18/04/2006

NB. Find attached a document “Ten Reasons Why Alexander Downer Should Go”.

Contact: Martin Callinan 0400-006311

TEN REASONS WHY ALEXANDER DOWNER SHOULD GO

REASON NUMBER 1: Ministerial ignorance is not bliss. We live in a constitutional system of ministerial responsibility. The idea that nobody is responsible for such a monumental disaster, so damaging to our international reputation, is unacceptable. On an issue of such profound significance, ignorance is no excuse.

REASON NUMBER 2: Minister Downer had an obligation under Australian law to ensure that Australian companies complied with UN sanctions against Iraq. He failed to discharge this obligation, yet he still claims he did nothing wrong. He continues to try to buckpass -blame the UN, blame AWB, blame Australia’s wheat competitors.

REASON NUMBER 3: He misled Parliament. In February he was asked in Parliament about a January 2000 cable from his Departmental staff in New York, and said “of course, I would have read them.” But when questioned by the Cole Commission he said he had “no specific recollection” of the cable. Did he read it or didn’t he?

REASON NUMBER 4: He can’t cope with the demands of the job. He told the Cole Commission he doesn’t have time to read diplomatic cables, and only reads them when he is stuck on a plane and has nothing better to read. He told the Cole Commission that was one reason he failed to pick up on a series of warnings from diplomatic and intelligence officers about problems with AWB.

REASON NUMBER 5: He is too gullible for the job. He simply accepted AWB’s denials that it was not paying bribes and made no further inquiries. He didn’t apply the same standard to Saddam Hussein’s denials concerning weapons of mass destruction! He got that one wrong as well. Given the stream of warning bells, he should have made further inquiries. His claim to the Cole Commission that the only other option he had was to call in the Federal Police is disingenuous in the extreme. For example, he could have personally demanded to be taken through the structure of the contracts. They would have been pretty brave to have lied to his face. The former Labor Government scrutinised contracts with Iraq thoroughly.

REASON NUMBER 6: He is too lazy to follow up serious issues. In March 2004 he wrote “this worries me” on a Department report about the Volcker Inquiry, and asked about AWB’s pricing arrangements. But he failed to follow the issue through. He got an

AWB letter in June 2004 which was unenlightening, but failed to chase this matter up. Despite this, Australia’s Ambassador Thawley misled US Senators later on in 2004, which has since damaged Australia’s standing in the United States Congress. He presides over a Department so administratively sloppy that, even when he says he is worried, nobody does anything!

REASON NO 7: He does not run his portfolio in a professional way. For example, he met with AWB CEO Andrew Lindberg in June 2004 to discuss the UN’s Volcker Inquiry, but no-one took any notes, even though he had two staff there. Perhaps they thought there was no point taking notes because he never reads them. The public service used to record everything in triplicate to ensure a reliable historical record, but this no longer suits the Minister. The absence of a record of this meeting is no mere academic point. There has emerged at the Cole Commission a major dispute between Mr Lindberg and Mr Downer as to whether Mr Lindberg informed Mr Downer that Alia, which AWB was paying fees to, was half-owned by the Iraqi government. Mr Lindberg says he did; Mr Downer says he didn’t.

REASON NO 8: He argues his Department has degenerated into little more than a “postbox”! His Department rubber stamped AWB’s corrupt wheat deals with the Iraqi Grains Board. What on earth were they being paid to do? Minister Downer was totally unable to explain to the Cole Commission why his Department did not drill down into the detail of the inflated prices in AWB wheat contracts. And his excuse that finding out corruption in contracts was the UN’s task is just not good enough. For example he had Australian taxpayers, through AusAid, take over liability for one of the corrupt contracts three days after war broke out - but although taxpayers become liable for the contract, the bribes inside the contract went undetected.

REASON NO 9: He failed to distinguish between AWB’s interest and the public interest. At a Meeting in June 2005 with AWB, despite the myriad warnings he’d heard by then, he indicated his “strong support” for the company and said he “saw it as his responsibility to defend AWB”. He embarked on a strategy of trying to tough it out and of cover-up, which has maximised the embarrassment for Australia, instead of getting to the bottom of the matter and making a clean breast of it. The damage to Australia would have been lessened had we been more co-operative with Volcker.

REASON NUMBER 10: He still doesn’t get it. The Cole Commission challenged him over the failure of his staff to read crucial intelligence reports sent to his office in 2000 that warned that a trucking company facilitating Australian wheat sales in Iraq was an agent for Saddam Hussein’s regime. He was also challenged over his staff’s failure to pass on a warning from a US army officer about kickbacks to the regime because they thought the officer was not of sufficiently high ranking. Yet Minister Downer expressed full confidence in his staff! He said

- they had “done a good job” and - “faithfully implemented government policy”, and he - could not make “a single criticism of his department’s handling of the affairs” “I think they fulfilled their duty. They are very professional people”.

So there was no criticism, no recriminations, no consequences. The truth is their actions suited the government, so there will be no accountability, no responsibility. It is a repeat of the ‘children overboard’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’ debacles. Ministers say “we were misled by our advisers’, but take no action to penalise them”.

The only rational conclusion is that the Ministers are not sincere. Either Ministers were told more than they’re letting on, and won’t punish advisers for fear of having the whistle blown regarding their real state of knowledge, or they approve of not being advised, and want to maintain the system of Ministerial ignorance and plausible denial.

If Ministerial responsibility and public accountability is to mean anything in this country, this system must be cracked open. Minister Downer’s resignation would send the message that the public is no longer prepared to tolerate such miserably low standards of Ministerial performance.

KELVIN THOMSON Federal Shadow Minister for Public Accountability