Senator Bob Brown (left image) is the first Australian politician to call for official accountability in the secret dealings the Australian Government has had since 2004 with Oleg Deripaska. He is chief executive and controlling shareholder of United Company Rusal, the Russian aluminiun monopoly registered on the island of Jersey.
Once barred from Australia, following the US ban on issuing him a US entry visa, Deripaska was granted a special waiver by the Australian government, and allowed subsequent visa entry. The reason, says a former Australian ambassador to Russia, was that the government in Canberra had decided, secretly, that there is an Australian economic interest in selling bauxite and alumina to Rusal’s refineries and smelters worldwide.
Before that decision was taken, Rio Tinto, the dominant producer of bauxite and alumina in the country, was asked by Canberra officials whether the company regarded Deripaska as a business rival it wanted to be kept out of the country. Rio Tinto responded it had no problem with Deripaska in Australia, so long as he was restricted to a minority position in alumina, and was barred from mining bauxite altogether.
Australian trade data indicate that exports of bauxite and alumina – the raw materials required to produce aluminium — reached a peak value of A$6.5 billion (US$5.9 billion) in 2008. In that year, they ranked the 8th most valuable commodity trade Australia conducts with the rest of the world. In 2009, as the global crisis and Rusal’s debts cut production of metal, Australian exports of bauxite and alumina fell 26% to A$4.8 billion (US$4.3 billion).
Rusal produces some of this exported alumina through its 20% stake in the Queensland Alumina Refinery (QAL). This was acquired in an auction after the original stakeholder, the US company Kaiser Aluminium, went into bankruptcy in 2004. Rusal paid A$402 million, and assumed US$60 million worth of Kaiser’s debts. Rio Tinto holds the balance or 80% of QAL.
Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, and a former federal government minister say that approval of Rusal’s purchase of the QAL stake by Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board was carefully arranged, so that the FBI dossier on Deripaska and other US materials were not considered in the process.
Because Rusal is one of the principal buyers of the Australian exports, and because there are so few other buyers, government statistics keep secret what tonnages are shipped to what destinations, what buyers pay, and which countries are on the receiving end. According to the published statistics, the destinations and buyers of $4.7 billion worth of bauxite and alumina are classified Australian state secrets.
Keeping Rusal’s business, and keeping it secret are a habit for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
Bob Brown represents Tasmania in the Australian Senate. Since 1996, he has won three successive terms, and is the leader of the Australian Greens, the environmental protection party now contesting the national parliamentary election that will be held on August 21. Brown is one of the Australian parliament’s leading campaigners against human rights abuses, including the abuse of citizen rights by Australian government officials.
In the Senate, Brown is a member of the standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade. The Committee can conduct hearings and pursue investigations, requiring periodic testimony from government officials. Twice each year, following the presentation to parliament of the ruling party’s budget and of a supplementary appropriation bill later in the year, this Committee evaluates spending estimates for the departments (ministries) of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Defence, and Veterans Affairs. According to the Senate standing orders, senators have the right to question ministers or department officials; the latter have the obligation to reply. Committee members put formal questions in the record of that process, and government ministries have 60 days in which to return their written replies to the Senator asking the questions, and to place them in the Senate record known as Hansard.
On June 2-3, Brown put the following questions to Stephen Smith, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Simon Crean, Minister of Trade at the time (he was reassigned on June 28). The agencies responsible for answering the questions are the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and the Australian trade promotion agency, Austrade. The deadline for the agency’s replies was July 30.
Never before has there been an Australian parliamentary inquiry into the Rusal secrets which the government has been keeping. Here are the questions:
|2 June 2010
Senate Estimates: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade
Questions on Notice
1. How often has the Australian embassy engaged the Russian firm Alpha Inform to provide security services in the past two years?
2. Has Australia’s Ambassador to Russia met with any representatives of the Russian firm United Company Rusal in the past two years? If so, what was the nature of the contact?
3. Have any Australian politicians or officials met with representatives of the Russian firm United Company Rusal on visits to Russia in the past two years?
3 June 2010
Senate Estimates: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (Austrade)
Questions on Notice
1. How often have Austrade’s Russian representative/s met with or had contact with the Russian security firm Alpha Inform in the past 12 months? What was discussed in these meetings or contacts?
2. How often have Austrade’s Russian representative/s met with or had contact with representatives of United Company Rusal in the past 12 months? What was discussed in these meetings or contacts?
3. How often has Austrade engaged the Russian firm Alpha Inform to provide security services in the past two years?
4. Did Austrade officials meet with the Head of United Company Rusal, Mr Oleg Deripaska or his staff, when he was in Australia this year? If so who met with him and what was discussed?
5. Did the Minister for Trade or any staff from his office meet with Mr Deripaska when he was in Australia this year? If so what was discussed?
6. Is Austrade aware of any plans by United Company Rusal or Norilsk Nickel to expand their interests in Australia? If so, what are they?
7. Have Austrade officials or the Minister for Trade or any of staff from his office met with United Company Rusal’s Australian representative John Hannagan in the past two years? If so what was discussed?
8. Have Austrade officials in Australia or Russia provided any information briefings to the Foreign Investment Review Board about United Company Rusal in the past two years?
One reason for the Senator’s questions about Australian contacts with the Moscow security company Alfa-Inform is that it has been regularly employed by the Australian Embassy in Moscow for a range of security operations. The evidence for that is this testimonial, which appears on the Alfa-Inform website.
The second reason for the Alfa-Inform questions is the evidence gathered by Moscow police that employees of Alfa-Inform were employed to prepare and execute an armed attack on John Helmer last December.
The name of their client, according to a report the police found in the car of the Alfa-Inform employees, was Rusal. According to the detectives who interrogated the men after their arrest, they acknowledged their assignment to find and make contact with Helmer had been ordered and paid for by Rusal. They also named individual Rusal executives. The pistols they were carrying were for the purpose of frightening Helmer, they claimed, not killing him.
On May 18, a Moscow court ordered the police to reopen their investigation of the Alfa-Inform employees and their plan of attack; that investigation had been summarily closed in January after senior police officers claimed there was insufficient evidence to support prosecution. Investigations of two Rusal executives and a former Rusal executive, including intercepts of their communications relating to the plan of attack, are being conducted by a number of foreign governments.
The Australian Ambassador to Russia, Margaret Twomey, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in Canberra refuse to investigate the affair. They have also decided against requesting the evidence gathered by the Russian authorities, or the intelligence services of the US and UK. The Australian officials also refuse to disclose what the Embassy files reveal about the employment of Alfa-Inform.
It is to fill in this record and determine what Australian government officials are doing on behalf of Alfa-Inform and Rusal that Brown’s questions were lodged in the Senate Estimates process. Earlier, he had sought a meeting with Minister Smith, but had been refused. According to Brown: “The Greens are very interested in any deals the government makes with investors that do not follow proper processes….We will keep a watch on the activities of this company [Rusal] in Australia and of its proprietor. I will also ensure answers to the estimates questions on notice I have lodged about Rusal are followed up so the department and minister understand this is an issue I intend to pursue.”
July 30 is DFAT’s deadline to answer Brown. The day before, Angus McKenzie, an assistant secretary of DFAT for liaison with the parliament, wrote the secretary of Brown’s committee, Kathleen Dermody, announcing: “I note that the Committee resolved that Friday, 30 July 2010, would be the return date for answers to those questions. I wish to advise that the Department’s draft responses are still under consideration and that it is not possible to meet the deadline for the return of answers.”