Speeches

Speeches Chris has made in the Australian Federal Parliament.

DOCUMENTS Report of the Inquiry into certain Australian companies in relation to the UN Oil-for- Food Programme

November 28, 2006

Mr HAYES (Werriwa) (7.59 p.m.)—Getting to the bottom of the biggest Commonwealth
scandal in Australia’s history is no easy task. Getting to the bottom of a government so
accustomed to hiding itself from any form of public accountability I have to say, again, is no
easy task. Getting to the bottom of a $300 million payment to the corrupt dictatorial regime of
Saddam Hussein is no easy task. But getting to the bottom of all these things with terms of
reference with little or no flexibility is virtually impossible. However, that is precisely the task
that this government set Commissioner Terence Cole when they asked him to investigate the
involvement of the AWB in the UN oil for food program. It stands to reason that, when your
investigation is so restricted as it was, when the playing field is so skewed as it was, when the
finding of wrongdoing is all but impossible to achieve, it is hardly surprising that Commissioner
Cole could only find the government to be incompetent rather than criminal.


Yesterday we heard from the Attorney-General, who said that no other country has undertaken
such an open and far-reaching inquiry. Today in a censure motion, the Prime Minister claimed
that it was an inquiry that was truly remarkable. It was an inquiry remarkable in its
transparency. The only thing that was transparent about this inquiry was the government’s
perspective—it was lopsided; it was skewed. It was a one-sided set of terms of reference.
Everyone knew that to be the case and that is probably why the Prime Minister has indicated
that it was transparent.


If it was not an open and far-reaching inquiry, why was it that Commissioner Cole himself, in
correspondence to the opposition, indicated there was no capacity for him to find as to the
stewardship of these ministers for the responsibilities they had? That was at the outset of this
inquiry. Therefore, I think the Prime Minister is probably right to say it was transparent. It was
transparent; it was open. Even Commissioner Terence Cole himself acknowledged that he had
no capacity to find as to the stewardship of those ministers involved.


Why did the government allow this to go through without any examination? I think that is
pretty obvious. If there were such certainty in the ranks of the members opposite, particularly
amongst those of the frontbench, that they were all innocent, why would they have restricted
these terms of reference in the manner that they did? There is one thing that the Australian
public does understand when it comes to ministers who set the scope of an inquiry so narrowly
as to make it all but impossible to find fault—that is, that there is fault to be found. That is
why the terms of reference were so skewed from the outset.

The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs might think
that they have pulled the wool over the eyes of the Australian public on this one by making
sure that they could not be found to have been doing anything wrong. But the Australian
public can see through those tricks. While members of the government are happy with the
result and are happy to be found incompetent rather than criminally negligent, the Australian
public realises there is more to this. We know that the Australian public knows that the
departments of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Trade actually approved all
those contracts for sale. All the very contracts which were being investigated by the Cole
commission were approved by those ministers’ departments.
We and the Australian public know that this government received on no less than 35 occasions
warnings indicating wrongdoings, suspicions of bribes and the involvement of these ministers.
Quite frankly, it is appalling that these ministers have not taken some responsibility for
running their own departments. The allegations were being made not only by other countries
but also by UN personnel and other organisations—yet everyone has ducked for cover and
said, ‘We didn’t know.’ That was the defence from the three wise monkeys. We know, and the
Australian public know, that this was wrong. It is inexcusable that $300 million went to
Saddam Hussein to fund a conflict that would ultimately wind up as a campaign against
Australian troops.


The Prime Minister has tried to write down the conclusion of the Cole report in language more
satisfactory for his own purposes. He is trying to push the line that Commissioner Cole has
completely exonerated the government. If you listen to the Prime Minister, it would appear
that there was no wrongdoing by him or his government. Much like the Prime Minister’s claims
that he has not broken promises on or given commitments to such things as keeping interest
rates low, this characterisation of the Cole findings, quite frankly, bends him so far out of
shape that the truth becomes almost impossible or at least unrecognisable. If we accept the
Prime Minister’s assertion that none of his ministers were responsible for any wrongdoing then,
as a matter of course, we must start to ask some serious questions about their competence.
As the Leader of the Opposition said today, this is a shameless government. Its members are
here saying with pride and boasting to us, ‘We are not criminally culpable; we are merely
incompetent and negligent.’ I think that is a fair summary of what has come out of the Cole
report—and also, quite frankly, for the celebrations that took place last night by a number of
members on the opposite side. In public life and in public administration, to be found to be
incompetent and to be found to be responsible for gross maladministration is nothing to be
proud of. Just because you avoid the hangman’s noose by being found to be incompetent
should not let you off scot-free.The Prime Minister should be asking some pretty serious questions about the competency of
his ministers. I can only hope that he is asking those questions of his ministers and that he is
dusting off that little used document that he once had that outlined ministerial responsibility—
and that he recognises that those ministers investigated by Cole have been found to be well
and truly out of their depth and should be dismissed. That is what ministerial responsibility is
all about. As if the finding of incompetence is not enough, unlike in other circumstances this is
a time when the price for ministerial incompetence is known. The price on this occasion for
ministerial incompetence was $300 million—paid to someone who turned out to be ultimately
an enemy of this country. That is right: $300 million was paid in bribes to a country, to a
dictator, we were about to go to war with.


I know that many members opposite go to great lengths to emulate their great hero, that
Liberal Party former great, Prime Minister Menzies, but I doubt whether Pig Iron Bob, even in
his heyday, would have kept delivering pig iron to the Japanese for five years after he knew
that at some stage he was going to invade them. He never really got around to that, but the
point is that not even Pig Iron Bob would have pulled the trick that has been perpetrated on
the Australian public in this case. This government is not off the hook. Looking at the editorial headlines of a number of newspapers today, when it comes to the AWB scandal it certainly is
not off the hook, and nor should it be. This government has sent public accountability to new
depths.
This government seems to be proud of the fact that it can get away with simply being criticised
as being incompetent rather than being held criminally responsible for the activities associated
with these contracts with Saddam Hussein. But, while the government gloats, our reputation
as an ethical and responsible trading nation is being eroded. I cannot help but think that those
who are witnessing this government’s joy in the findings of the Cole commission are
questioning this country’s ongoing commitment to fair international trade. We have already
seen—and we should not forget this—that the newly elected Iraqi government actually
postponed and cancelled contracts with this country because of the activities of AWB. That was
the newly installed government of Iraq. AWB has tarnished Australia’s exports and this
government has overseen the process.
One of the many things that Australia could pride itself on internationally was the fact that it
was always considered to be a responsible trading nation. It did not involve itself in some of
the less than savoury activities of other nations simply to procure contracts. However, AWB
has ruined that notion for everybody and it has ruined our reputation. One bad organisation
has ruined our good reputation—one bad organisation that this government was warned about
on 35 occasions and did nothing about.
It is difficult to see where the findings contained in the five volumes—the more than 2,000
pages—of the Cole inquiry are likely to take us. It is clear that the government has accepted
that the findings are findings of innocence and that there should be no further action taken in
this place. As a matter of fact, Mr Deputy Speaker, you will recall that only yesterday you
heard the Prime Minister say:
I don’t expect it will happen, but Mr Downer and Mr Vaile are owed an apology by Mr Beazley and Mr Rudd.
Have you ever heard anything more ridiculous? As the editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald
answered today:
On the contrary, Prime Minister, it is the Australian people who are owed the apology. Your ministers, who have so
signally failed to manage their portfolios, should make it.
I think that is a pretty good summary of how the Australian population sees where this
government sits at the moment. Members opposite should be hanging their heads. If they are
out there celebrating and drinking up about being excused by being exonerated from criminal
activity and simply being seen as incompetent, I say that, if that is all they have to celebrate,
that is a pretty poor form of government for this country. At the very least, those ministers
should be held to account for their incompetence and they should be dismissed.


The timing of the Cole commission report has resulted in a collective sigh of relief from these
ministers who have been under question. But to simply go into renewed vigour—as the Prime
Minister tried to do in the last two days about his government being exonerated—will not wash
with the Australian public. The Australian public is already distrustful of this government, no
matter what the spin, and that is the way it should be.


The Australian public are already distrustful of governments generally. You have to understand
why that would be the case. If this is the reaction they see from an elected government—if this
is the form of responsibility they take, if this is the form of ministerial accountability that is
imposed by a Prime Minister over his ministers—no wonder they become cynical of
governments. Quite frankly, there are one or two people in this place who are clearly in the
wrong place; they should not be here.

The Australian public believes that government should be doing everything they can to ensure
that there is proper scrutiny of something as important as the oil for food program, particularly
as it has been raised with us by a number of international organisations, particularly as it does
amount to bribery—something which we would say is foreign to the way we would normally
expect Australian companies to act internationally—and particularly when these contracts were
supervised and approved by two ministers of this government. At best, this Prime Minister
owes the Australian population the heads of those two ministers for incompetence. If he does
not deliver, he taints his whole government.


It is a sad fact, when you hear the comments that have been made and see the celebrations
that are taking place, that there is only one member on that side of the House who has spoken
out about this—just one. That just shows the level of discredit that— (Time expired)

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