Vaile gives evidence at AWB inquiry
PM - Monday, 10 April , 2006 18:10:13
Reporter: Brendan Trembath
MARK COLVIN: The counsel assisting the bribes to Iraq inquiry has told reporters that if the Prime Minister John Howard appears in the witness stand at the Royal Commission he's hoping it will be on Thursday.
As we'll hear shortly, Mr Howard expects to have his written statement with the commission by 4pm tomorrow.
Today, though, it's been the Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile's turn to give evidence.
Mr Vaile's conceded that the Government should have investigated an allegation in early 2000 that the wheat exporter AWB might have been paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime.
Mr Vaile has told the bribes to Iraq inquiry that with the benefit of hindsight perhaps someone should have looked into the claim.
But Mr Vaile's told the inquiry that he and other ministers took the wheat exporter's word when it repeatedly denied making corrupt payments.
The reason: AWB was a highly respected major corporation.
Brendan Trembath has been at the Cole inquiry, and joins me now.
(to Brendan Trembath) Brendan, what sort of scenes surrounded Mr Vaile's arrival?
BRENDAN TREMBATH: Quite an impression, because he made an arrival worthy of a rock star. Many members of the public were there with cameras, because with so much media attention it did appear as though perhaps the Rolling Stones were making an appearance at the Cole inquiry.
But here's what Mark Vaile has told reporters:
MARK VAILE: We've always maintained that we had set up an open and transparent process as far as the Cole inquiry is concerned.
My appearance here this afternoon following my submission to the inquiry is proof of that. And of course the Foreign Minister will be giving evidence tomorrow afternoon.
We've said that it is an open and transparent process that we've established in Australia that not too many other governments around the world have done. And this is proof positive of that.
MARK COLVIN: Perhaps a little disappointing for the passers-by who'd been hoping to see Mick Jagger, but that was the Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile.
(to Brendan Trembath) Brendan, how was the reception that he got inside the building?
BRENDAN TREMBATH: Well, he was questioned by the main lawyer for the commission, John Agius, SC, a senior and veteran lawyer, who is asking most of the questions at this inquiry.
And he put Mr Vaile under some pressure. He didn't raise his voice but he persistently asked questions about the Australian Government's knowledge of kickbacks, or possible kickbacks, to the Iraqi regime.
Now, Mr Vaile's voice appeared to be under some pressure itself. He started fairly strongly, but as the questioning continued he found it harder to speak clearly.
MARK COLVIN: He became a little hoarse?
BRENDAN TREMBATH: Indeed, a little hoarse. The voice was wavering a little there.
MARK COLVIN: And what did he recall about the many cables circulating in Government indicating that the AWB might have been paying kickbacks to Iraq?
BRENDAN TREMBATH: Well, in his sworn statement, which accompanied his evidence, this is the one that was kept secret until today, more that 20 times he says: "I have no recollection of receiving or reading a particular cable." He can't recall the specific contents.
But there's an important cable that he was asked about. This is the one that was sent in January 2000 from Australia's diplomatic mission in New York to Canberra. And this was sent by the diplomat Bronte Moules, who's become quite a well-known diplomat.
In the cable she suggested that there were allegations that Australia's wheat exporter AWB might have been paying kickbacks.
There had been a complaint from another country, now known to be Canada, that the Iraqis had been putting the hard word on companies exporting food to Iraq to make payments in addition or outside the Oil-for-Food program.
But this particular cable Mark Vaile says, "I have no recollection of receiving or reading this cable."
He says he was aware in a very general sense that concerns had been raised by the United Nations about an AWB contract, and that the matter was being dealt with by the Department or Foreign Affairs and Australia's United Nations mission in New York.
MARK COLVIN: Does he concede that it is quite extraordinary for the Minister in the Department of Foreign Affairs, one of the two ministers in Foreign Affairs and Trade, would not have got a cable of that importance from somebody of that seniority, on a matter affecting his portfolio?
BRENDAN TREMBATH: On that issue of the cables, and whether or not they should have been brought to his attention, he says that with the benefit of hindsight they probably should have been brought to his attention, particularly because he was a senior minister in Government.
Sometimes he said that the Oil-for-Food program was not his direct ministerial responsibility, but all the same he was the Trade Minister at the time.
MARK COLVIN: And what about how he reflected on his evidence when he came out of the inquiry?
BRENDAN TREMBATH: Well, he left the building and waded into a sea of reporters.
There were so many people covering this inquiry it was standing room only inside. So as soon as his evidence wrapped up, after about an hour, he waded into this throng.
Here's what he said outside the inquiry:
MARK VAILE: This is clearly an inquiry that has the ability to ask ministers questions, to get all the information together. And we should now leave it up to Commissioner Cole to complete his work, pull together his conclusions, which I understand will be reported back by the end of June.
BRENDAN TREMBATH: You said AWB was a highly respected Australian corporation. Do you still consider that to be the case?
MARK VAILE: I'm not prepared to make comment about any Australian companies in the middle of this inquiry. Let's just wait to see what the inquiry comes out with in terms of the companies involved. That's why it's been set up.
REPORTER 1: Are you embarrassed…
REPORTER 2: Were you wrong about the AWB Mr Vaile?
REPORTER 3: Mr Vaile, you went on believing AWB…
REPORTER 2: Mr Vaile, were you wrong about the AWB? Is that what you're saying today?
MARK VAILE: Well, I think that there is evidence coming before the Cole inquiry that indicates that there's some of the questions that need to be answered. And the Cole inquiry is going to find answer to those.
REPORTER 2: You were… Were you too trusting of them, sir?
MINDER: Guys, the car is here, so we're going to have to move for him. All right?
MARK VAILE: No, I was not too trusting.
MARK COLVIN: "Not too trusting", says Mark Vaile of himself.
Now, Felicity Johnson is a new name in all of this. She is the new witness thrown up by tonight's Four Corners program, a UN customs inspector, and what she's had to say has already been making headlines.
It now appears that the Cole Royal Commission may call her or has called her… asked her at least to give a statement. What's the significance of all that, Brendan?
BRENDAN TREMBATH: Well, she has been given approval by the United Nations to give a statement. The Secretary-General has been asked, so has the British Foreign Office.
Her evidence is important because that January cable I mentioned, from Australia's diplomatic mission, was basically as a result of information from her.
So she was the one that first raised the allegation that Australia's monopoly wheat exporter might have been making payments outside the Oil-for-Food program.
She followed it up. She wanted a response from Australia. She didn't get one. And that's an important issue. Why didn't this woman, who was with the United Nations, not get a response when she raised some concerning allegations?
MARK COVLIN: Also a few question marks, I suppose, about why she's only appeared now through Four Corners rather than turning up in the Cole Commission if she was a witness in the Volcker inquiry?
BRENDAN TREMBATH: Well, the inquiry has had difficulty with overseas witnesses. There is no power to compel them to give evidence. It can ask for a statement.
As I mentioned, in her case the United Nations had to give approval for her to be able to be allowed to give evidence.
But in some cases we've had overseas witnesses who've deliberately refused to give evidence.
MARK COLVIN: All right. Well Mr Vaile, who was only questioned essentially by his own lawyers and by the counsel for the commission, but what about Mr Downer tomorrow? Will he be cross-examined by people representing AWB for example?
BRENDAN TREMBATH: Well, there is one remaining application to interview the Foreign Minister on behalf of other witnesses. And the Commissioner has still to indicate whether they will actually be able to cross-examine the minister.
The Commissioner wants them to only be allowed to cross-examine the minister if the evidence the minister has referred to in his sworn statement is at odds with what's been put before the inquiry already. He doesn't want this to be some sort of big fishing expedition, where a minister of the crown can be asked endless questions about Australia's wheat trade or other business.
MARK COLVIN: All right.
Well, it's clearly another big day to come in the commission tomorrow with Mr Downer there.