Today’s revelations
that kickbacks paid by Australia’s Wheat Board to Iraq financed the
families of suicide bombers adds heat to next week’s Cole Inquiry,
which will trawl through the murky world of international commerce.

Austrade sources predict some lively evidence. Most Australian and
international companies play by the unwritten rules of the country
they’re trading with. Those who don’t usually fail – as do many who do.

In Jakarta for many years it was attaching yourself to part of
the Soeharto family. In China it used to be the Deng or the Jiang
families (Zhu Rongjii was always considered clean, though Chinese
companies did use his family connections for their benefit).

most Asian and Middle Eastern countries, business people are met with a
wide array of fixers, consultants, brokers, shysters, conmen and women.
Many companies, including high profile Australian firms, just give up.
Others decide that the only way to do business in places like Hong Kong
is to use brokers to do all the dirty work for them. Sure, they have to
pay agents fees and that will cut margins, but it’s better than getting
into the festering morass of kickbacks and under-the-table payments.

and other business consultants usually give advice on two levels;
straight up “this is how you do it formally” and “here are the back
doors and tricks of the trade.” We’re told that Australian government
agencies avoid participating in any of this – but they do explain the
real world of business in Asia.

So, how does it work? Let’s take
China as an example. Until about ten years ago, the only way to go was
through Hong Kong, home of the necessary “consultants” who would charge
exorbitant fees to grease the wheels of commerce. On the books it
looked like “public relations” or “management consultancy fees.” These
brokers would pay off the right people and the Australian or
international company would be hands-off. Many huge multi-nationals,
particularly in the telecoms area, are believed to have spent
mega-millions greasing palms.

In those days, many Chinese wanted
to travel and – this still applies today – they wanted their children
to travel and to get a better education. It would be hard to find an
expat business in China that didn’t “facilitate” travel and education
visas for their “guanxi” (connections). It’s still going on today and
quite a few Australian “consultants” who used to work for the
Department of Immigration have set up lucrative businesses in this

As for the AWB, they basically wouldn’t have had a Middle
East or Asian market if they hadn’t adopted the same business practices
as the Americans, the Canadians and the Europeans.

[Send stories of how the wheels of international commerce are greased to [email protected]].