The AWB oil-for-food scandal continues to build daily, going from bad to worse for the Howard Government. The Cole Inquiry's continuing revelations fly directly in the face of the justifications given by the prime minister for its severely constrained terms of reference. These terms excluded any investigation of the role of ministers, their departments or ministerial staff.
Instead, they were confined to the investigation of the companies involved and whether they had broken Australian law.
In November, John Howard tried to justify his narrow terms of reference by saying: "There's been no suggestion the government has been in any way involved."
Daily evidence at the Cole Inquiry shows otherwise, and builds the case for expanded terms of reference, at the very least. Clearly, the result of such restricted terms of reference has been to shield the Howard Government, its ministers and their staff from the level of scrutiny to which AWB officials have been subjected.
To date, no government official has given evidence. They should be at the inquiry detailing their involvement and subjecting themselves to examination and cross-examination.
It has been revealed that AWB officials briefed the prime minister, the foreign minister and the trade minister on aspects of their dealings in Baghdad in 2002. We know now that there was correspondence between AWB officials and the highest levels of government in the lead-up to the second Gulf War and about the same time that the kickbacks were being negotiated between the Iraqi regime and AWB.
By his own actions and refusal to move, the prime minister is unwittingly making the case for a standing anti-corruption commission independent of political interference. Such independent inquiries are vital to the integrity of our democratic system.
In NSW, there is the Independent Commission Against Commission and in Queensland the Crime and Misconduct Commission.
One thing to become abundantly clear from the AWB inquiry is that there is a strong and clear case for a federal equivalent of NSW's ICAC or Queensland's CMC, with full royal commission powers. Make no mistake: a federal ICAC would have the necessary powers to get to the truth of the matter.
If the AWB Iraq wheat deals had occurred at the NSW State Government level, we would be witnessing a conga-line of senior government officials, ministerial staff, ministers and perhaps even the premier appearing before the inquiry. They would be compelled to answer questions under oath.
Whistleblowers and senior bureaucrats would be providing evidence without fear or favour. Witnesses would be offered immunity from prosecution if they co-operated fully with the inquiry.
Under the federal regime, the government has been able to set up a limited inquiry with narrowly focused terms of reference, one without the power to compel ministers or the prime minister to appear. In addition, the Cole Inquiry is prevented from making adverse findings in relation to ministers.
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