Michael Pascoe writes:


The primary unanswered question for the
Federal Government over the AWB kickbacks is why the Canadian UN allegations in
2000 didn’t ring any alarm bells.

In time the Cole inquiry might well find
AWB had no trouble sandbagging the half-hearted DFAT inquiry into the
allegations because Canadians and Americans making allegations about AWB’s
propriety didn’t themselves have any credibility.

The wheat trade has long been a theatre for
allegations of impropriety on all sides – and not without foundation. As one
senior local player told me: “The Americans and Canadians would accuse
us of under-cutting world prices one day and then of over-charging and paying
bribes the next. They just didn’t have any credibility.”

He says the wolves circling the Australian
single desk wheat export monopoly are far from clean themselves. “What are the ethics of the US giving
food aid tied to sales of grain? Here’s aid for free, but you have to buy this
wheat to get it. That’s corrupt too.”

While there’s been some public
hand-wringing by farmers and vested interests about the ethics of AWB kickbacks
to Iraq, there’s also concern that the Cole inquiry will finish up damaging all
Australian exporters trying to do business in markets that, er, have different
“traditions.”

“It’s normal practice in these places. You
appoint a local agent and you pay him commission to do what has to be done to
do business. If you don’t pay the commission, you don’t get in the door. That’s
just the way it is.”

My contact wasn’t just talking about grain
trade.

And looking ahead to the PR job the Federal
Government will eventually have to do on AWB and the single desk after Terence
Cole reports, there’s no easy answer available in taking the monopoly from AWB
and giving it to someone else – there remain plenty of question marks over
anyone else with the experience to do the job in this often dirty business.

The majority of farmers remain in favour of
the monopoly. I’d continue to argue that the monopoly itself is a corrupting
influence and it is absolutely corrupt to allow the single desk company to have
any say in deciding what exceptions might be allowed to the monopoly.

Despite that, the government will continue
to give the farmers what they want, perhaps trying to hose down the
understandable contempt for AWB’s actions by promising an earlier review of the
single desk that will still take months if not years – providing time for
plenty of personnel changes.

As long as the extremely forgetful AWB
executives continue to leave their board out of it, there’s a good chance AWB
will survive with the usual promises of a clean start.

The test for that though might come this
week when former chairman Trevor Flugge takes the stand. The best and biggest
rural soap opera since Blue Hills is about to crank up another notch.

Peter Fray

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