Barristers appearing
at the AWB Inquiry will argue to Commissioner Terence Cole later this
week that the Prime Minister, John Howard, is in contempt of the
Inquiry, Crikey understands. Their claims are based on the PM’s public
comments last week blaming AWB executives for the kickbacks scandal and exonerating Deputy PM Mark Vaile and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer of any wrongdoing.

Crikey
believes the lawyers will claim that the Prime Minister’s comments have
pre-empted Commissioner Cole’s findings and were prejudicial to AWB
executives because of Mr Howard’s role in establishing the inquiry and
his position in high public office.

Under section six
of the Royal Commission’s Act 1902, the Prime Minister could face a
fine of up to $200 and up to three months in prison if Commissioner
Cole finds he is in contempt of the Inquiry:

Contempt of Royal Commission

(1) Any person who intentionally insults or disturbs a Royal Commission, or interrupts the proceedings of a Royal Commission, or uses any insulting language towards a Royal Commission, or by writing or speech uses words false and defamatory of a Royal Commission, or is in any manner guilty of any intentional contempt of a Royal Commission, shall be guilty of an offence.

Penalty: Two hundred dollars, or imprisonment for three months.

It
is also possible lawyers will argue the PMs comments have brought the
Cole Inquiry into disrepute by calling into question Terence Cole’s
independence.

And the barristers aren’t alone in their views.
Professor John Williams from the School of Law at the University of
Adelaide has told Crikey that the PM’s “willingness to provide
commentary, to the point of declaring himself and his ministers
innocent and the AWB guilty, amounts to prejudging matters before the
Royal Commission.”

” Without going into the issue of contempt of
the Commission, it should be remembered that the Executive appointed Mr
Cole to investigate and report upon the AWB affair. Whether or not the
Commission can also investigate the actions of the Executive is itself
a matter of controversy. But even if it can, to prejudge that matter
could call into question in the minds of some members of the public,
however mistaken, the independence of the Commission’s processes and
outcomes.”

Peter Fray

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