The scandal continues to widen as more revelations occur at the Cole Royal Commission into bribes paid to Saddam Hussein’s regime by Australia’s monopoly wheat exporter, AWB. Even Republican Senators in the USA are getting snippety. Simone Weil once wrote that “Petrol is more likely than wheat to be a cause of international conflict” but in this case it looks like it’s both.
It now appears clear that the kickbacks extend back at least until the period when the company was controlled by the Australian government.
I still want to see more detailed evidence before making definitive comments about how much responsibility the current government must take for this situation, but I do think it is now beyond dispute that the terms of reference for this Royal Commission should be widened.
I learnt a lot from my involvement in the Senate Committee that inquired into (among other things) the “Children Overboard” incident . However, one of the main things that stuck out was how Government Ministers had now built a highly effective firewalls of personal staff around them, enabling the Ministers to maintain plausible deniability of having been told something inconvenient. The number of loose ends that ended up leading into that black hole was substantial, and it was beyond the power (or at least the political will) of the Senate Committee to follow them.
The Royal Commissioner must be able to have ready access to the personal staff of Ministers, as well as Department officials, if he is to have any hope of clearly determining who knew what, when and what they did about it. It is bad enough that this subverting of the Oil for Food program in Iraq was allowed to occur (as it did in many other parts of the world, including the UN itself, it should be noted), but if any Minister was even half-aware that it might have been happening and allowed it to continue while our government readied itself to send Australians to war in Iraq, they should be made to resign from the Parliament, not just the Ministry.
Guido suggests that most Australians really don’t care much about corrupt or dishonest behaviour in government anymore, “unless it directly affects them” and “the economy is perceived to run smoothly”.
A related debate has been sparked about whether the monopoly export power, or single desk arrangement, currently held by AWB, should be allowed to remain. I mused about this on a previous post, pointing also to a long discussion about it on John Quiggin’s site. John, who has 30 years experience as an agricultural economist, has produced a more definitive view today, saying on balance he feels the single desk system should be abolished. As with is lost post on this, the comments are worth perusing as well.
I suspect some political momentum might build on reconsidering the single desk, although National Party Leader and Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, is still defending it strongly.
21st Feb – The latest evidence to the Commission provides a direct allegation from an AWB official that a DFAT officer “assured him the UN sanctions committee has actually been aware these payments have been happening but have been turning a blind eye if the amounts are not excessive”. If this allegation is accurate, it makes a clear inroad into the assertions that government officials were not aware that illegal payments were being made.