Protest outside Cole inquiry

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Protestors outside the inquiry dressed to parody key individuals implicated in the scandal. April 11, 2006
Protestors outside the Cole Inquiry. April 11, 2006.

The Australian activist organisation AID/WATCH staged a protest outside the Cole Inquiry on Tuesday. In a press release, Kate Wheen of AID/WATCH attacked the government over the scandal, claiming that foreign aid is being used to benefit businesses rather than those in need. "It’s scandalous that AWB was paying kickbacks to the Iraqi regime, but it is unethical, immoral and possibly illegal that our government can ruthlessly support Australian business whilst so many in Iraq remain in such great need," she said.

The Cole Inquiry, started in January this year, is tasked with investigating whether Australian companies paid bribes to Saddam Hussein during the UN Oil-for-food programme. The government has denied any wrongdoing. In a press conference on Monday, the Prime Minister defended his ministers. "I do not believe, on the information known to me that any of my Ministers have been guilty of dereliction of duty and I am very, very happy to provide the statement and, if asked, to appear."

The Australian Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, and Foreign Affairs minister, Alexander Downer appeared before the Inquiry this week. During questioning, both men rejected all suggestion that they made any mistakes or acted in any way innapropriately.

On Monday Mark Vaile repeatedly answered that he "couldn't recall" details of whether he was aware of the many warnings given to the government from various sources that dealings between the AWB, formerly the Australian Wheat Board, and the Iraq government were corrupt and supplied the pre-invasion Iraq government with up to 300 million dollars of funding.

Alexander Downer spent 3 hours before the commission on Tuesday and said that he could not specifically recall the details of any of the 21 cables containing warnings about the possibility of kickbacks being paid to the Iraqi government. He claimed that he did not have time to read all the material in his department and spent much of the year travelling. The Labor Party opposition has pointed to the fact that this testament seems to contradict statements previously made to parliament.

The commission also received a written statement from Howard, which will be assessed by the inquiry's lawyers to determine whether he should be called before the inquiry. Howard has said that he is prepared to appear before the commission, if required.

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