LAST WEEK the Federal Court rejected the Australian Wheat Board’s (AWB) claims of legal professional privilege, instead ordering a large number of documents be released to the Cole Inquiry.
Following this decision, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock granted the UN Oil-for-Food Inquiry more time to complete its proceedings, extending the reporting date until 24 November 2006.
“The work of the Inquiry has been seriously affected by AWB’s claim in the Federal Court that a large number of documents are subject to legal professional privilege and therefore not available to the Inquiry,” Ruddock said.
The later reporting date follows the third request by Commissioner Terrance Cole QC for an extension of deadline, which was due to be 29 September, although it was originally set for 31 March. The wheat board is being investigated for claims that it paid up to $290 million in bribes to the regime of Saddam Hussein.
In a brief statement released by AWB, it said it accepted the Federal Court decision. “AWB is considering its position but is unlikely to appeal against the reasons for the decision,” the organisation said.
AWB welcomed the finding that most of the 900 documents were held to be privileged by the Court, although admitted that “privilege was waived on approximately 350 of those documents”.
Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Trade and International Security, Kevin Rudd and Shadow Attorney-General Nicola Roxon praised the Court’s decision, saying that it “confirms Labor’s long-standing concern that AWB has repeatedly relied on legal professional privilege to protect itself from scrutiny, in circumstances that have now been shown to be inappropriate”.
The Federal Opposition ministers may have also alluded to the legal representation of AWB, including Richard Tracey QC and Blake Dawson Waldron, Minter Ellison and Arnold Bloch Leibler, when they said that “this decision is an important reminder to all lawyers to limit their claims of privilege to appropriate documents”.
In what may foreshadow the possibility of criminal charges being laid against AWB executives, Justice Neil Young of the Federal Court held in his decision that at least one of AWB’s dealings with Hussein was “deliberately and dishonestly structured by AWB and the Iraqi Grains Board so as to misrepresent the true nature and purpose of trucking fees and to work a trickery on the United Nations”.
This was made all the more odorous by the fact that, as late as early 2006, AWB had been “openly claiming that its legal advice showed there had been no evidence that it was engaged in any wrongdoing in connection with the supply of wheat to Iraq under the oil-for-food program,” Justice Young said.
Ruddock said that “the Government was determined to ensure [Cole] had the means to conduct a thorough and efficient investigation”.
Yet the Opposition renewed its claims for that investigation to be widened to incorporate Government wrongdoing.
“If [Howard] has nothing to hide, he will take this opportunity to expand not just [Cole’s] reporting deadline but also his terms of reference to allow him to investigate whether Ministers and officials did their job,” Roxon and Rudd said.
“There is already a demonstrable case of gross negligence and collusion on the part of the Howard Government in this scandal. All the while the cost to Australian wheat farmers of the Howard Government’s failure to discharge its duties appropriately has been significant,” they said.