Hugo Kelly

We asked 10 days ago: was the government aware of documented departmental concerns about the “transport fees”
being paid by AWB to the company Alia prior to the publication of the Volcker
inquiry into Oil for food? If so, when were they made aware of this and what was
the nature of the departmental advice?

Alexander Downer’s office declined to answer back
then on the grounds that the Cole Inquiry may want to ask those type of
questions. Now, commissioner Cole has begun to answer these critical questions
himself. His release yesterday of letters from Howard and his deputy are the first clear pointers that the government knew at its most senior levels
the kind of reprehensible behaviour going on at AWB.

Today, making a rare appearance on AM, Howard
was taking the “Sergeant Schultz” approach: “We were in no way involved with the payment of bribes. We didn’t condone them,
we didn’t have knowledge of them, but we did work closely with AWB,” said Howard,
sounding suspiciously like a politician trying to have his cake and eat

This scandal is rapidly boiling
down to the old Hobson’s choice for the government – either they knew and they
are corrupt; or they didn’t know and are incompetent.

Most rational
politicians caught in this bind will choose “incompetent”. That way they can
blame (and “discipline”) some minions in agencies at arms length from the
administration. Although Howard’s ability in past scandals to retain his mantle
of competence while slipping away from allegations of misconduct is truly

The prime minister’s comments over the past 24 hours, unlike
his supportive position of the AWB right up until the weekend releases from
Cole, indicate the first wielding of the axe to cut the troublesome AWB boat