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Old parties close ranks in Oil for Food inquiry

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 24 Mar 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (16:14): I rise as the chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee to speak to the tabling of this report into the work undertaken by the Australian Federal Police's oil for food task force. Firstly, I would like to place on record my thanks to the legal and constitutional affairs committee secretariat, so competently led by the committee secretary, Ms Sophie Dunstone, for their support to the committee throughout this inquiry. I would also like to extend my special thanks to Mr Hari Gupta at the secretariat for his exemplary work in bringing the Chair's Minority Report together. This was a task that was made even more than usually challenging by the degree of in camera evidence taken by the committee. To provide a report that was comprehensible to those who were not privy to the in camera evidence, so that it had some coherence, was a very challenging task. Mr Gupta did a very good job of that, but it did take some time.

I will turn now to some of the issues relating to this inquiry. I put on the record that, unfortunately, the Australian Federal Police were not as helpful as they could have been in assisting the committee during the course of this inquiry. In particular, they declined to release the advice of Mr Hastings QC in camera to the committee. In doing so, they gave up an opportunity to clear doubts held by some members of the committee, and certainly members of the Australian public, in relation to whether the task force was shut down prematurely and on what legal basis that occurred.

In the absence of any evidence of the legal grounds for shutting the task force down-apart from some somewhat vague assertions-there is serious ongoing concern that the task force was shut down for political, not legal, reasons. One of the reasons that concern continues is that there was a royal commission into the activities of the Australian Wheat Board, and this saga and the lingering smell associated with it is that although a great deal of illegal activity and wrongdoing was uncovered by the royal commission that has not resulted in substantive criminal charges. One of the offences that the Australian Wheat Board could potentially have been charged with is obtaining financial advantage by deception. A defence to that kind of charge would be that there was no deception, that there was no misleading. That would require a defence and evidence that those who were allegedly misled or deceived-in this case the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade-actually knew what the Australian Wheat Board were doing, and therefore misleading action did not take place. Of course, if that had occurred it would have exposed the department and raised serious concerns about what they knew at the time. The fact that this saga has continued and that there is a lingering smell associated with the activities of the Australian Wheat Board and the royal commission, which ultimately has not resulted in substantive criminal charges, again reinforces the point that we need a national independent commission against corruption.

In the course of this inquiry, we saw the two old parties tend to close ranks in the in camera hearings and in the finalising of the report, to protect the AFP and the Department of Foreign Affairs from being too closely scrutinised. While the Senate has the legal powers to effectively act as an ICAC, the Senate does not have the financial or human resources to have a permanent standing body. More importantly, there is not the political will to investigate something that in this case, for instance, crossed over both the Howard and Rudd governments. The Senate's power is self-restrained to the point of impotency. That will not stop the Australian Greens from moving an order for the production of documents to order that legal advice from Mr Hastings QC be tabled in the Senate. That would clear up any doubt around the reasons for the winding up of the task force, which is very clearly on the record as having failed to meet its terms of reference and wasted millions of dollars with very little to show for it-although it underspent its budget before it was prematurely closed down. It would also help to establish whether the closing down occurred was on the basis of legal advice or political imperatives.

Unfortunately, the failure of the Australian Federal Police to secure any criminal outcome against the Australian Wheat Board has been repeated in relation to other foreign bribery investigations. I make particular reference to the Securency scandal-the Reserve Bank of Australia note-printing scandal-but I would also refer to the Leighton Holdings issue, as raised in this chamber by Senator Dastyari, and the OECD's report that was highly critical of Australia's efforts in dealing with foreign corruption, with one prosecution arising from 28 referrals.

Because of this systemic failure of our national police force to cover one of its main areas of jurisdictional responsibility, in the Chair's Minority Report of this inquiry the Australian Greens have recommended that the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity launch a broad inquiry into the structural, recurrent failings of the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and into whether we should look at establishing a specialised agency between them and state law enforcement agencies to ensure that foreign bribery and white-collar crime is being investigated and prosecuted without compromise or delay.

A final point that shows the desperate need for an ICAC at the federal level is the testimony of Mr Jason Young, who is a former ASIC employee. On the public transcript, before the committee went in camera, he named a senior member of parliament as being a person of interest identified by ASIC in a brief that went to ASIC's executive. Mr Young's evidence was that when it came back from the executive the name had been dropped from the short list of who to pursue. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of political will in the Senate for very serious issues to be fully examined and pursued.

I would like to conclude by thanking and acknowledging the role of a particular individual, Mr Ross Fusca, for his evidence to the committee. Mr Fusca's original voice, which I became aware of through the media, raised concerns about the conduct of the task force and the closure of the task force without its having completed what was, in his view, its clear job. It was what brought the issue to light and was the reason that the inquiry was launched and that the Greens were so keen to have this inquiry.

Mr Fusca is a longstanding, experienced and honourable police officer. Along with many others who could be characterised as whistleblowers, he has shown great courage to voice his concerns. He has taken steps, to his own detriment-again, a common aspect of whistleblowing-in pursuing what he saw as being in the public interest and in the interests of integrity. Mr Fusca was a very dignified witness before the inquiry and I was quite humbled by the willingness that he showed to stand up, essentially put his head above the parapet and take on and voice the concerns that he genuinely has held in relation to the way this task force was conducted and ultimately closed down.

Unfortunately, despite strong efforts on my part to have at least some unanimous or majority chapters in the report which merely recited the factual background to the Australian Wheat Board issue and the royal commission before this inquiry to essentially make it easier for the public to read this and get a coherent sense of what has occurred, that was not possible to do. It was a particularly politicised inquiry and, ultimately, a very short majority report was provided by the government senators and the opposition senators. The Greens report is longer and I think it goes into more detail, which will make more sense to people who want to get the background to the inquiry. While I never expected that we would see shared recommendations coming out of it, it was a disappointment to me that we were not able to make the Senate committee system work as well as it can in giving important information to the public.

That said, again I would like to thank the secretariat for their good work. I commend the report to the Senate.

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