Michael
Pascoe writes:

As the
Australian Wheat Board hits the fan over more kickbacks
and Trade Minister Mark Vaile and AWB Ltd duck for cover, it’s worth revisiting the source of most cases of corporate corruption – the
inherent culture.

The
non-response from Vaile’s office is particularly disingenuous – they’re
not
commenting because there’s an inquiry underway into AWB Ltd’s Iraq
kickbacks. The Iraq inquiry has no brief to explore the affairs of the
old Australian Wheat Board in Pakistan which is, legally, a separate
animal from AWB.

Legally they
might be separate, but culturally it’s much the same animal. And the AWB
culture is quite ruthless – the “whatever it takes” attitude used to protect
its export monopoly came from the Australian Wheat Board and remains alive and
well.

While seeking information
for a story on the AWB’s monopoly a couple of years ago, more than one farmer
was happy to supply background opinion but not willing to go on the record for
fear of reprisal. The AWB enjoyed a tough reputation as a fighter to protect
its monopoly.

That
acknowledged, today’s Smage story about the way kickbacks were allegedly
handled by the wheat board should be viewed in the context of the times. It was
necessary to grease palms to conduct business in various countries and plenty
of Australian companies dealt with the unpleasantness by using a local partner
to do the dirty work. Nobody liked it,
but if you wanted to sell your goods there were “commissions” handled on a
once-removed basis.

Our morality
has evolved about such things, as it has in many other areas of business.
Insider trading has gone from good luck to a jailable offence, unless
you’re Steve Vizard. Some employers wouldn’t employ married women, but we now
take equal opportunity for granted. Civilised
people don’t hang criminals any more. So it goes.

There will be
plenty of executives and former executives who worked for a wide variety of
companies in Asia in the 1970s, 80s and 90s who will be feeling a little nervous if these
latest Australian Wheat Board allegations catch fire.

If the culture
of those less ethical days still permeates an organisation though, it is a much
more serious matter.