Now that Alexander Downer has been dragged into the AWB scandal, it’s clear the Government is facing major – major – trouble. We are reliably informed there are quite a few smoking cables and emails floating around DFAT. And we understand the Opposition has got their hands on some of them.

Sources tell Crikey that Downer and Agriculture Minister Mark Vaile were warned of “concerns” about the Board’s activities some two years ago. It’s interesting that AWB CEO Andrew Lindberg, an otherwise clever man with a good memory for detail, told the inquiry yesterday he “couldn’t recall” whether he told Downer of the transport bribes – despite memos like this tending to help investigators fill in the blanks.

Now Mark Vaile is acting PM, and he has sort of – but not quite – denied the Government knew about the $300 million siphoned off to the Iraqis.

The wording here is crucial. The Minister said: “I’m not aware of any evidence that shows that the government, or government officials, did know about the transport arrangements.” Not that he, personally, or his office, didn’t know. That is a quite different matter, and counts for something in a government which deals in sophistry and semantics as a matter of course.

Some enterprising gallery journalist needs to put formal questions to the offices of Vaile and Downer about who knew what and when. We’ve started the ball rolling this morning by sending the following email to Downer’s office:

Was Minister Downer or his private office aware of documented departmental concerns about the ‘transport fees’ being paid by AWB to the company Alia prior to the publication of the Volker inquiry into Oil for food? If so, when were they made aware of this and what was the nature of the departmental advice?

The question here is not whether they knew in precise detail about whether this money was being siphoned off to Saddam. The question that needs to answered is: if there were “concerns” raised, no matter how unspecific, did they seek more information; and if not, as protectors of our international diplomatic and trading relationships, why not?

Just passing the buck to public servants won’t wash. We’ll let you know their response tomorrow.

Peter Fray

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