The fishwrappers (Smage,
Oz) do their best today to link John Howard with the AWB scandal via documents
released by the Cole inquiry, but they
have nothing – no rodent teeth marks on the silos.

It’s a valiant attempt but still a beat-up
to claim, as the SMH front page headline does, that “Howard letter draws PM into wheat
scandal.” The letter reads intriguingly as Howard asks AWB to stay in close
contact with the Government on Iraq to
obtain a satisfactory outcome but, like most communication from government,
it’s largely meaningless.

Stay in close contact, work together for
the benefit of all, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, no child will live
in poverty – it’s all standard pap.

The letter needs to be seen in the
perspective of the time – Australia’s
wheat industry was understandably starting to panic over the Government’s
“Rambo rhetoric” costing it its best market. One shipment of 500,000 tonnes had
been cancelled and four others delayed. The world wheat market at the time was
doing it very tough. Iraq was far and away the best market for Australian sales with all
the alternatives for any lost contracts much, much cheaper.

The farmers who were big enough and connected enough
to be informed about that
were led to
believe the high Iraq prices were due to the fact that AWB had managed to bundle
together a
number of services for the Iraqis and were being paid for them. Well,
everyone now knows what some of those services were – and they
certainly paid

Relations between the Government and the
farmers were still going down when Howard wrote that letter on 27 July. They would
bottom on 12 August when the Prime Minister publicly lashed the Grains Council
on ABC radio and denied that he was war mongering. It was
only after that that the parties kissed and made up and the PM was fully
briefed on just how important the Iraq
trade was to the bush. Until then, it seems the PM wasn’t doing much more than
going through the motions of showing concern.

So if the 27 July letter is Terence Cole’s
best shot, he’s got nothing. Not even rodent droppings around the header.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.


Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey