THE AWB oil-for-food scandal continues to build on a daily basis, 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.
ICAC and the CMC were established by conservative state governments and subsequent Labor administrations enhanced their powers to deal with corruption and maladministration.
They are so independent that they can embark on their own inquiries and set their own terms of reference.
In addition to ICAC in NSW, there are strong freedom of information laws and the Police Integrity Commission, which also has the powers of a standing royal commission.
Since Labor won office in that state in 1995, there have been no fewer than 99 ICAC investigations. ICAC is also a vital mechanism for anyone dissatisfied with the integrity of government decision-making.
Premiers, ministers, ministerial staff and senior public servants have all made appearances there, in full public view.
In Queensland, notwithstanding the sweeping powers given to its CMC, the state has also had several high-profile royal commissions, most notably the Shepherdson inquiry set up by Premier Peter Beattie to investigate improper behaviour by members of his own party and Government.
The inquiry was held on the eve of the 2001 Queensland election, which Beattie won in a landslide. His success in that campaign gives the lie to suggestions that royal commissions are always bad news for governments. By embracing the recommendations - rather than just adopting them - Beattie was identified as a champion of reform.
On the other hand, the Prime Minister has gone out of his way, time and again, to avoid such levels of accountability and independent scrutiny.
In 10 years Howard has held only three royal commissions and now the Cole inquiry, which has less power than a royal commission. It's also worth noting that two of these royal commissions were aimed squarely at his old foes: the ALP and the building unions. Hardly an outstanding record of accountability.
At the same time, in the face of overwhelming evidence Howard has refused to hold royal commissions into cases that undoubtedly deserved them. Notably, the Immigration Department's role in Cornelia Rau's detention and Vivian Alvarez Solon's wrongful deportation.
Once again, a standing anti-corruption body would have investigated both matters; set its
own terms of reference and decided who would be compelled to give evidence.
Politicians, regardless of their political persuasion, rarely welcome increased accountability or scrutiny. But the time has come for Australia to have the national equivalent of NSW's ICAC or Queensland's CMC.
There must be a mechanism to ensure accountability and transparency when serious allegations of impropriety arise.
Bruce Hawker is managing director of Hawker Britton in Sydney and a senior Labor strategist.
© The Australian