Systemic corruption of the type uncovered
at AWB requires a sympathetic culture to survive, if not outright support. It’s
up to the Cole inquiry to discover whether approval for the Iraq
kickbacks was official, but the culture question is already open to
speculation.

There are two aspects to this – AWB’s tough
guy stance in protecting its wheat export monopoly and the enormous pressure on
the AWB from growers to get results. The combination results in a “whatever it
takes” culture that has little trouble in offering the requisite bribes and
kickbacks.

I’d argue that the monopoly itself is
unhealthy if Australia is serious about not wanting its wheat exporter to indulge in
practices we regard as unethical.

Just from a discovery point of view, it’s
easier to get away with bribery when you don’t have a competitor or two
checking on you, but the monopoly influence goes further.

As we’re noted previously, AWB has proven a
tough organisation to deal with for those opposed to its monopoly. I’ve had
conversations with individual farmers who wouldn’t go on the record with their
criticism of the AWB as they feared the consequences. There are a couple of
groups that are big and ugly enough to take on AWB, but most are not.

There has long been a touch of
self-righteousness about the AWB’s attitude to its single desk export monopoly
– and self-righteousness is always a dangerous thing as it tends to justify
whatever actions might be taken. Most farmers still support the touch of
agrarian socialism that is the single desk scheme, but that shouldn’t empower
the AWB to do whatever it likes. A
company prepared to kick growers’ heads over criticism won’t have much trouble
adapting to baksheesh traditions.

And then there is the pressure from farmers
for the AWB to do whatever it takes. Does the average wheat grower, imbued with
the belief that they operate at a disadvantage in a massively corrupt industry,
really think greasing the occasional Pakistani or Iraqi palm is such a bad
thing compared with what the Americans and Europeans do to agriculture?

We’ve been trading wheat for more than a
century in places where holier-than-thou politicians wouldn’t be seen treading.
If we don’t do business in the local manner to sell our good, honestly-grown
wheat, those corrupt Americans and Europeans will to sell their dishonestly
subsidised stuff. Does the Australian farmer care? I suspect not.

You might remember the pressure to maintain
our wheat trade with Iraq in the very shadows of the invasion. Whatever it takes.

It all adds up to a culture that
grandstanding politicians will now fall over themselves to disown. I might
start taking them seriously if they dismantle the culture’s underpinnings.

Peter Fray

72 hours only. 50% off a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

Our two-for-one offer with The Atlantic was so popular we decided to bring it back.

But only for 72 hours.

Use the promo code ATLANTIC2020 and you’ll get 50% off a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year of digital access to The Atlantic (usually $70). That’s BOTH for just $129.

Hurry. Ends midnight this Thursday.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

Claim Now