Senate Estimates Gagged

I am at Senate Estimates Committee hearings this week. I’ve been mainly focussing on immigration matters, but the big development has been yet another display of unprecedented arrogance from the government in providing direction to all public servants putting a blanket ban on responding in any way to any questions about AWB and the Saddam kickback scandal. This gag has also been extended to government agencies such as ASIO and CrimTrak.

There is simply no way that the Government would have tried this if they did not control the Senate, as to me it is a clear case of contempt of Parliament. Despite attempts by the government to draw a parallel to a past action by a Labor government, the Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, provided advice statingmy colleagues and I have been unable to find any precedents for this direction.”

His advice also stated that:

Reference was made in the House of Representatives to an instruction by the then government in 1989 that officers should not answers questions about the coronation Hill uranium mine. The basis of that direction, however, …. was that cabinet was deliberating on the question of Coronation Hill at the time of the Estimates hearings, not that a commission of inquiry was inquiring into the matter. (The need to protect the confidentiality of deliberations of Cabinet is one of the recent grounds for a claim of public interest immunity). On various occasions, questions have been asked and answered in estimates hearings about the conduct of commissions of inquiry, for example, the HIH royal commission in 2003 and the building industry royal commission in 2002.

In the last six months, the government has engaged in a number of unprecedented actions in the Senate, gagging scrutiny and debate. However, this one is right up near the top of list when it comes to flagrant disregard for the Parliament. As Matt Price wrote – “a sad day for parliamentary accountability.”

UPDATES: A good piece by Michelle Grattan in today’s Age gives an outline of the government’s form in trampling on the rights of the Senate.

Laurie Oakes’ latest piece in The Bulletin describes the “serial contempt” and the “arrogant and unparliamentary” approach of the government.

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  1. I read the Hansard on the basis of Matt Price’s article and it was staggering. Senator Minchin is stonewalling, not about the substance of any AWB questions, he’s stonewalling the committee on the right even to know where and when in Government the decision was taken to direct public servants not to speak.

    Is this the way the game will be played until the next election? Will non-Government Senators be able to make any headway in pointing out this abuse of parliamentary process?

  2. An interesting thing happens when arrogance takes hold like this – somewhere the media finally find the guts to really fight back. Read the editorial today in the OZ – it is about the 6th one damning this government and AWB for their handling of this. I suspect Rupert is a wee bit furious after his rampant support of the war.

    Then Laurie Oakes has found the questions on notice from last time around and pointed out that if the ONA and DIO didn’t say anything in January 2000 after getting a long cable about Canada’s concerns then what the hell were they doing, did they read it even? Or did the ONA look out for newspaper reports to make their answers up from like they did with kids overboard.

    Another interesing thing is that finally the people of Australia have found something truly repugnant that they are responding to – hooray.

    What I find so stupid is that they are gagging ASIO when they are supposed to protect the public interest and security not protect wheat distributors. The only thing one can conclude is that Paul O’Sullivan, formerly of Howard’s office is protecting him.

    Minchin went on and on about not taking RU 486 out of the hands of the minister due to a lack of accountability by the bureaucrats then gags the bureaucrats on wheat.

    It’s kind of wheat overboard isn’t it with all the suspicions and ploys used in kids overboard coming home to roost on the lying rodent’s head. Now he has the gall to beg the Iraqi president not to cancel our wheat sales because we “helped them to gain democracy”. More like starved them, drowned them, locked them up in the desert, kept their families separated, sent home the poor Kadem family to a place they had never lived, then bombed the hell out of their country.

    Paul McGeough reported before Christmas from Baghdad that our soldiers are also protecting the dodgy Khawama brothers in Al Muthana – they were the middle men in the whole AWB scandal and AWB even flew one of them to Melbourne paying all their air fares, $200 a day for living expenses – more than an Iraqi man lived on during the sanctions for a year – paid for expensive hotels and the Melbourne grand prix and so on.

    If I was the Iraqi president I would have two words for John Howard. “Get f….d”. How stupid does Howard think the Iraqi people are? I have friends who were locked up for years in Woomera and others who have not seen their families for over 6 years thanks to John Howard and there are the relatives of 353 Iraqi refugees who still don’t know for sure if their loved ones drowned.

    The more people try to hide things the more we will find them.

    (114) Output 1.3: Enforcement of Immigration Law
    Senator Kirk asked:
    In a letter from Mr Jim Williams of DIMIA to Roqia Bakhtiyari dated 25 June 2003, when
    Roqia was 5 months pregnant, DIMIA offered Mrs Bakhtiyari the option to complete an
    Afghan passport application form and $10,000 as part of the Afghan reintegration package if
    she is accepted as a citizen by the Government of Afghanistan and if she travelled back home
    to Afghanistan. In light of the fact that DIMIA had refused to accept that Mrs Bakhtiyari was
    an Afghan citizen, why was this option given to Mrs Bakhtiyari?
    In 2003 when the offer of the Afghan reintegration package was made to Mrs Bakhtiyari, she
    was claiming to be an Afghan national.
    DIMIA has not refused to accept that Mrs Bakhtiyari is an Afghan national. The fact is that
    the Afghan authorities have never confirmed that she is Afghan and are continuing to
    investigate. However, that aside, the Pakistani Government has confirmed her right to enter
    Pakistan as a national of their country.

    Here is one example of the banal evil of this government. It is not possible to be an Afghan citizen and a Pakistani national.

    The Afghan government are not still searching for them and after millions of words to the contrary by DIMA they now blithely claim they never denied this poor woman was an Afghan all along.

    Everything that is hidden can become known with persistence.

  3. It is clear to see the result of giving the Howard Government control of the Senate.

    Bring on the 2007 election. The Senate will be in the spotlight for once.

    It is time for the people of Australia to punish Howard’s arrogant Government which is snubbing and shutting down Parliamentary process more and more each day.

    This is a clear demonstration of what a partisan Senate looks like. Will it get worse? That remains to be seen, but blocking public servants from even answering questions and also gagging an ALP senator from asking questions which happened to Kelvin Thompson is an unprecedented act of arrogance and a blight on Australia’s democracy.

    All this arrogance and stonewalling from the Libs should make an interesting Federal election in 2007-08.

  4. Yes I think if economically things remain the same and the so-called scandals are proven to be largely beatups, as they now appear to be, then they’ll punish him by voting him back in.

  5. Hi — just a quick spam to let your readers know what will be on Dateline tonight. From this morning’s SMH:
    “Tonight the SBS Dateline program plans to broadcast about 60 previously unpublished photographs that the US Government has been fighting to keep secret in a court case with the American Civil Liberties Union.”

  6. “but the big development has been yet another display of unprecedented arrogance from the government in providing direction to all public servants putting a blanket ban on responding in any way to any questions about AWB and the Saddam kickback scandal.”


    Aren’t they just “gagged” from talking about it outside the commission?

    Is that really such an “arrogant” and “unprecedented” thing? In law is it not required that jurists not discuss the case outside the court?

  7. politicians opposed to the current government should get over the AWB scandal – its a non-issue.

    The only people it hurts are the ones that provide your food.

  8. Really Vee, is thta true that the AWB scandal is a non-event and only the farmers are being hurt?

    1.3 million Iraqis died under the sanctions and AWB stealing $300 million from them to give to Saddam Hussein is an issue for all of us.

    [sentence deleted]

    It turns out that the IRAQ deal was only 10% of all our sales – and it was illegal to deal with Saddam Hussein.

  9. Geoff

    As the advice from the Clerk makes clear, it is unprecedented. There is no lgeal principle that matters before an Inquiry can’t be discussed elsewhere, and if there is a specific question asked that might raise a particular problem, then they can decline to answer it, stating why. To just put out a big blanket saying “No official is allowed to answer anything about AWB” is beyond the pale, and a serious restriction of accountability – particularly when one of the key questions is what those very officials may have known and what they may have communicated to Ministers.

    It is just extending the protective firewall against scrutiny (which I refer to in this post) much further.

    I’ve added a link in my original post to a piece by Michelle Grattan – one the few press gallery journos left who has an understanding of the role, processes and history of the Parliament – which gives an indication of how serious this is.

  10. I don’t know Andrew there have been Royal Commissions in NSW where people were not to talk about things outside the commission.

    Yes Michelle was also one of the few Journalists that took Rudd and Co. to task for telling porkies and not retracting or apologising.

  11. Marilyn, I’ll take the welfare of Australians over Iraqis, Americans, Brits, Africans or any other nation any day.

    It was a UN approved contract between Australia and Iraq using Iraqi money (held by the UN). It was allegedly against UN sanctions but so was the invasion in the first place.

    The invasion was designed to make GWB look competent. Australia went along because Australia relies on the US for many things and does not want the rug pulled out from under them.

    Apart from the recent ban of AWB deals with Iraq – the contract had not been infringed upon.

    The inquiry will not catch a pollie but it will catch department heads and hurt growers but what does anyone care when we’re pulling down our quarantine barriers in the name of cheaper goods and services under the auspices of free trade thus putting people out of jobs with constant business restructuring and overseas outsourcing?

    So I take it Marilyn you don’t care about the reputation of Australian wheat farmers at all who currently go through the AWB and realise this’ll affect all deals not just the Iraq one.

    Not to mention this wheat actually fed people.

    Iraq should not have been invaded this time at all.

  12. I support wheat farmers 100% percent but never, ever at the expense of other people starving to death while our farmers get rich. The sad and shocking thing is that Saddam Hussein was getting the money and the Iraqi people were not getting the food.

    I agree that wheat actually feeds people but only if they actually get it.
    I don’t know why anyone would think that anyone in Australia is condemning wheat farmers – I have not seen or heard a single person doing that.

    But all life is supposed to be precious and the Iraqi people did nothing to hurt us yet we hurt them over and over and over again.

    Australia needs to examine why that is. It started when April Glaspie gave Saddam the nod and a wink to invade Kuwait.

    Of course I know this will effect all wheat deals but let’s get real here. Our wheat sales to Iraq are less than 1% of our GDP and the market is unequal as we don’t spend a single penny in Iraqi except to keep soldiers there.

    Less than 1% of our income is not worth all this. Here is a simple newsflash though – Australian’s are no more important or special than any other person.

  13. If the iraqui people didn’t get the wheat where did it go? I presume you mean – all of the wheat – The issue with Glaspie is not as clear cut, as you know Ms Transparency, as implied. Several interpreatioatiosn have been posited, ranging from tacit approval via non committment, to tacit diapproval via equally contradictory diplomatic speak. Tariq Azziz, is reported to have said he had no misunderstaning of the US cocnern re Kuwait, although to be fair his performacne during the latest conflcit doesn’t inspire confidence.

    However when in doubt go for the conspiracy.

  14. Ken if the wheat price is so inflated that a good deal less can be bought the people didn’t get it.

    As for the Iraqi people, what did they do to us?

  15. 1.Thanks for clarifying the hyperbole er the wheat.
    2. Dont disagree about the iraqui people, but the point of my comment had nothing to do with that. It was agian clarifying the hyperbole. maybe Geoff is right after all.

  16. The AWB wheat scandal is turning into a media and political scandal as well, and one that is costing innocent farmers plenty.

    Some reporters seem frantic to believe the Government approved $300 million of AWB “bribes” for Saddam Hussein… evidence, or lack of it… hardly seems to matter.

    Nor does the damage to the country… Iraq has stopped this week tendering for wheat contracts worth $800 million a year. Well done to Kevin Rudd and Kim Beazley too.

    Who can blame the Iraqis for being suspicious? Consider these recent gotcha headlines in our broadsheet newspapers: “Canberra knew of kickbacks” and “Wheat whistle blown in 2003”? Or the sloganeering of Kevin Rudd and the ALP… “Wheat for weapons” etc, etc, etc.

    Have the Prime Minister , or any ministers, been caught with their hands in the silo? Do we now have proof they knew all along the AWB was bribing Saddam?

    Well let’s not let facts get in the way of a good diatribe. Of course even Labor now admits, after weeks of damage, that there is no such proof at all. Which is why Kim Beazley today argues that the Government did not actually know about the bribes, but should have. :roll: Is that being caught out mid lie? Surely not. is there an apology? From anyone?

    Short answer… NO!

    Just another attach from the anti-Howard brigade. No wonder the public is yawning.

    The evidence to the Cole inquiry so far … has tended to show only the opposite: the AWB tried to keep its dirty deals secret.

    Unfortunately what has been missing in much of the media coverage is a sense of perspective… which would reveal that the AWB’s alleged crimes aren’t quite hanging offences, and that the real villain is as I’ve said… Saddam Hussein.

    This has not been “bribery” where the AWB paid Saddam Hussein with its own cash.

    No, the AWB paid inflated costs for trucking its wheat into Iraq, using a Jordanian company connected to the regime. It was all paid by the UN’s oil-for-food program, in which UN officials supposedly ensured Iraq’s oil money was spent on food, not weapons. Did they not have a responsibility to ensure contracts were within correct market limits and not over-inflated. I’d have thought so.

    Was the AWB alone in feeling forced to pay Saddam’s thieves in this way to do business? No apparently more than 2000 companies did the same.

    Did the AWB receive any bribes itself. Apparently not. But there have been scores of politicians, cronies, activists and others who allegedly did pocket Saddam’s cash, including some close to the anti-war presidents of France and Russia. Are there any inquiries into them?

    The head of the UN’s oil-for-food program, Benon Sevan, and other UN officials were also on the take. So what right… it’s not Howard. Let’s get Howard.

    As I have asked before;what options did the AWB have at times but to pay?

    Kim Beazley, said;”Can you think of another scandal where $300 million has gone to somebody who runs an oppressive regime, may have been using it to build weapons of mass destruction, was using it to support suicide bombers?” Hmmm, I guess he believes the war was validated after all.

  17. Yes, the AWB “scandal” is hurting farmers, but it is important that the Government’s actions are scruntinised as well to give them a clean slate.

    If the Government acted appropriately and allowed terms of reference for the Cole commission to include Government departments and ministers and other companies there would be no political scandal. The fact that instead, the Government has decided to gag public servants at Estimates hearings on the matter and won’t expand the terms of reference shows that either there is something to hide, or the Coalition are playing political games and in doing so are allowing the ALP to also play political games with the livelihoods of Australian farmers.

    If the Government isn’t hiding anything than they shouldn’t gag people from giving evidence to the estimates committee. I am not implying that they are hiding something, but it certainly looks like it. Gagging people in such a way IS unprecedented in Australian political history as stated by the Clerk of the Senate Harry Evans who has also written to Senators to tell them that there is no legal advice that Government can gag people from giving evidence.

    The issue I have with a Coalition controlled Senate is the fact that debate was gagged on nation changing issues in the last week of sitting last year and this year the Coalition are neutering the Senate Committee system.

  18. That’s just an assumption on your behalf max… how about trying innocent until proven guilty. Cole can call and will… anyone he wants.

  19. Geoff, did I say anyone was guilty? I think you will find not. I was simply saying that to the public it looks as though there is a cover up.

  20. If Estimates wasn’t gagged and there were broader terms of reference for the Cole inquiry there would be no public perception of a cover up.

    What is needed is openness, transparency and honesty. None of this occurs when the Government is stonewalling.

    In fact The Australian reports that there is now evidence that the Government should have known of kickbacks being paid to Saddam Hussein’s regime in the form of market briefing documents for the Government’s Wheat Export Authority which is the authority that oversees AWB. The question is whether the Government had receieved this information or not.
    The report can be found at:,5744,18163463%255E601,00.html

    Now this sort of evidence proves that there needs to be an expansion of the terms of reference for the Cole inquiry to include Government ministers and Government departments. Don’t be surprised if this is what Commissioner Cole calls for.

    This sort of evidence is damaging to the Government, because any gagging of Estimates now looks to the public like they are trying to hide something.

  21. Well max, I’m part of the public and I’ve made no such assumptions of guilt, or a cover-up.

    The PM is on the public record as saying he will cede to any decisions Cole comes to re the widening of the terms of reference.

    As far as “The Australian” reports go. It’s not the commission nor should its reports be considered in deliberation. Evidence is found by actually talking to those directly involved and sorting through hard evidence.

  22. There used to be but it disappeared quite a while ago. It may disappear completely at the next election.

    I disagree with the Senate sentiment though… we need a new party who will challenge both major parties in the House of Reps too.

  23. The issue for discussion, Geoff, was the decison to prevent civil servants from answering questions before a Senate commitee. If there is nothing to hide; why the gag?
    I find it almost amusing to ponder on the fact that at the same time as politicians were regularly demonising Saddam, they were (probably)well-aware of the wheat board expediency, whereby the kick-back money went largely to Saddam, as usual at the expense of his starving people, so he could build more jails and Weapons of Mass Destruction.
    It was a bit cheeky, though, to hear on the news tonight that, on top of all the other nonsenses, people involved in this operation were allowed to claim tax deductions involving it, further making me and the rest of the Australian people complicit in the torturing of victims of Saddam in his jails; in effect partly financed with our money.

  24. Not only tax deductions but Flugge was paid over $1 million from the AusAid program to feed the starving.

    I wonder how many simple soldiers in the firing line were ever paid by the government to steal from the Iraqi people?

    What a pathetic joke.

    Thanks Andrew. As Keelty and co. still haven’t answered all those many questions about SIEVX and their phoney people smuggling maybe the committee can ask them why on earth we should trust a thing they do.

    It’s funny how they managed to arrest a further 6 people involved in Australia and charge them with conspiracy to import.

    Anyway, how can the Bali 9 be guilty of trafficking out of a country? That doesn’t make a lick of sense. If they had trafficked into Indonesia maybe.

    It sort of reminds me of the perversion of the criminal justice system Australia carried out over the Bali bombers by forcing Bali into laws that perverted their constitutions.

  25. What a crock Paul, I’m Australian and I can tell you I’m not one bit complicit in the acts of a few stupid Americans. Nor did I finance it in any way. Statements like that diminish one’s credibility Paul. Do you know Marilyn?

  26. Geoff,
    Never met the woman in my life. If I’m right this is not first only blog I’ve visited, however, only to find your misanthropic self already put about, clogging up debates with your agenda-driven nonsense.

  27. No this is the only blog i’m active on. I did once put Tim Dunlop straight about a few facts he had wrong though. years ago. I guess you mistake me for all those other people who disagree with your pov. I’m sure there are many.

    How you can say I have an agenda is beyond me… perhaps you could explain.

    Misanthropic???? Now that is funny.

  28. Geoff what about we all agree that the Iraqi people that AWB stole from, that we bombed to bits and the ones that starved to death were 100% innocent of any wrong doing.

    Then ask why if we have to wait for Cole we couldn’t wait for Blix and Duelfer to report on the non-existent WMD.

    I note that Howard’s toadies are all claiming that it is good we blew up Iraq so that AWB were found out, saying we were right to do because the corrupt sanctions had fed Saddam.

    But we fed them to the tune of $300 million or $100 million per year.

  29. Andrew – why don’t you also suggest that along with civl debate particiants try to refrain from exaggerated hyperbole and wildly over the top generalisations – as per post 34.

    While one can only assume the intent and belief is genuine any chance of the subject being debated seriously is lost and the position put, which by the way I belive has substance, is largely ignored, due to the florid and over the top language.

    Hence the lack of civility in the debate.

  30. Well that’s our fundamental difference Marilyn, you prefer an Iraqi life to a potential struggling Australian farmer.

    And for the record, no I’m not deliberately trying to create a wedge. Just my opinion.

    And the flaw in your farming logic is comparing it to the GDP, rather than an individual farmer’s welfare. I can’t speak for wheat directly but I’m aware that Agriculture is about 4% GDP, down by about 8% I think in the last decade or two (don’t quote me on the fall though I could be wrong) but in real terms we’re doing more Agriculture and it has grown.

    You are also assuming the AWB actions were transparent to every shareholder. Any damage to the AWB is damage to the wheat farmers.

  31. Vee and Ken, what utter tripe. There are no starving Australian farmers for god’s sake. Get a life.

    Did you stop to think that the wheat farmers are my family? Why on earth would I care more for Iraqis than them. But, they are all human beings and the Iraqi people didn’t do anything to us.

    Ken I am not using wildly exaggerated hyperbole. That is the truth.

    Go off and read something beside your own words for heavens sake.

  32. How many people were blown to bits relative to the whole population?

    What proportion of Iraq did we blow up compared to toal land mass?

    Who are the “we” that did the blowing up – which particualr australian squadrons?

    Who is 100% free from all wrong doing?

    Pedantic I realise , but examples of wildy overblown hyperbole. It doesn’t do your case any good

  33. There are no starving Australian farmers… :roll:
    Marilyn, do you know we’ve just come through one of the longes, worst droughts, in recorded Australian history?
    Do you know how many farmers have lost their farm and their children the family inheritance?
    Do you know what the suicide rate is in the country and how many farmers have killed themselves?
    Do you think before you speak?

  34. Dodgyville said: “If only there was a sensible “third party” that could act as some sort of “balance” in the senate.”

    Geoff said: “There used to be but it disappeared quite a while ago. It may disappear completely at the next election.”

    There still is a sensible third party and that is the Democrats. Some people will disagree, I am fine with that.

    The Democrats have not disappeared. They still have 4 senators that work their backsides off and often don’t get any recognition for their work from the media or the public.

    An example of the Democrats showing that they have not disappeared has been demonstrated by the hard work of all Democrat senators on the introduction of the RU486 bill (introduced by Senator Lyn Allison and Senator Stott Despoja.) The Democrats then formed a multi partisan “cooperation” for women’s rights and the result has been that the Democrats have been able to take action on one of their policies through collaboration.

    Try telling the SA Democrats that they have disappeared when they have almost a full bill of candidates for their state election.

    Geoff, you had told me not to swallow the media’s line on AWB, why don’t you try not to swallow the media’s line on the state of the Democrats?

    It is not easy trying to get media coverage or to demonstrate that you have not disappeared when a party like the Democrats has been marked by the media because of their stance on cross media ownership laws and also because of party disunity in the past.

  35. Max Bauman, You are so right!
    The REAL tragedy of the last election was not Latham being kept out or Howard getting back, but the loss to Australian democracy of that balancing mechanism that used to be the Senate.
    As for VEE; why should an Australian life be any more precious than an Iraqi one, or Mexican or anyone else’s?

  36. Nothing wrong with the questions I asked Marilyn Andrew.

    Obviously you’re not fine with that at all max.
    My point is that the Democrats have changed since they were formed and have become more PC and progressive left than they have ever been and IMO that’s part of the problem. The Democrats I have voted for in the past HAVE disappeared.

    I can do maths max and how many Democrat Senators are left? I don’t need the media to point out the obvious.

    I do lament the loss of Senator Cherry though.

    I probably know a lot more than you about difficulties parties have with the media and getting the message out. I won’t though blame it on a single party policy though.

    I’ll leave it for Vee to stick up for Vee… but if Australians don’t look out for Australians we can’t expect anyone else to.

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