Alexander Downer is still on summer holidays,
but he’s been busy writing to The Australian denying a cover-up over Wheatgate.
His letter today decrying “hysterical claims in the media” shows how sensitive
the Government is over the unfolding wheat bribes scandal.

His
opposite number, Kevin Rudd,
told Radio National this morning that it was “incorrect” to
suggest, as we did yesterday, that the opposition had got their hands on some of
the smoking cables and emails floating around DFAT. What we do know is that
just
before Christmas, DFAT’s internal thought police gathered up all correspondence
on the issue, in preparation for the Cole commission and its inevitable
fallout.

This, even though
Cole’s terms of reference do not allow the inquiry to examine the
Government’s role.

“The internal cable and email
traffic still remains a mystery,” Rudd told RN’s Stephen Crittenden. “We know
that in November 2000 the AWB wrote to DFAT to formally advise they were
intending to engage a Jordanian company to handle transport, and asked if this
was OK.”

“Three days later, Downer
replied this is not in breach of UN sanctions…What I don’t know is how much this
was discussed by Downer, his department and his advisors.” Quite.

Whether a “smoking e-mail or
cable” surfaces or not, what will emerge is that many people knew that the wheat
deal was “fishy”; senior Government figures would have been told this formally
and informally over a few years – yet they chose to do nothing about
it.

Why? Because they were terrified of upsetting the
National Party/grain growers/NFF lobby – which is very powerful and extremely
vocal, especially in WA, northern NSW and southern Queensland. Powerful enough
to tear a Senate seat away from the National Party in Queensland … and think of
how that could have changed the political landscape over the past year.

What is clear is that Government will bleed
profusely for quite a few weeks, even months, and at the same time as a
reshuffle and simmering leadership tensions bring the internal pot to the
boil.

Rudd says the Government is “at minimum, guilty of
culpable negligence” over Wheatgate. For the
record, Downer’s affable press secretary, Chris Kenny, replied to our request
for information with this email:

Hugo,

The Minister is on leave. The Government
set up the Cole Commission to
inquire into the Oil for Food matters. The
Government and its departments
are co-operating fully and we look forward to
seeing the Commission’s
conclusions. The Minister would be happy to answer
any questions then.

Regards

Chris Kenny
Media
Adviser
Minister for Foreign Affairs

In the meantime,
we’ll keep asking questions.

Peter Fray

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