As the
AWB scandal deepens, sitting in the free archive of The Bulletin just a few
clicks of a mouse and a Google away is a cracking yarn from almost three years
ago entitled “Dealing with the devil“:

A $150m gold-for-wheat deal is brokered by
Australians, sanctioned by Canberra and with war-torn Iraq as the setting. A best-selling
international thriller? No way, as Anthony Hoy uncovers. This was reality…

Indeed.
Colour aplenty:

A nondescript truck slows to negotiate a
steep section of the highway leading to the Jordanian capital of Amman. The driver is tired. He has
driven more than 1000km from Baghdad and his reflexes and judgement are
fading. He bungles a gear change that kills the engine. The truck starts to
skid backwards. Now it picks up speed and begins to glide before coming to rest
in a 2m snow drift.

The driver gets out to survey the damage. His
heart is pounding. He swears and probably thinks about kicking the tyres. He
should be worried. In the back of the truck is more than $150m in gold bars,
bound for Australia at the personal request of Saddam
Hussein…

The journey of that gold bullion might have
been scripted by Hollywood. But its real authors were a team of
international bankers, politicians and a handful of Australians accustomed to
trading in the Middle East with suitcases stuffed with millions of dollars. How Australia clinched a deal with Saddam
Hussein worth more than $US110m is a tale of international intrigue, subterfuge
and government hypocrisy…

Which
government’s hypocrisy? Well, the events The Bulletin describes took place in
1991 – under Labor. Colour aplenty – and plenty of blame to go around. There
seems to be long story of murky business dealings here:

There are few westerners who know the
restaurants, coffee bars and back alleys of Baghdad quite like Charles Stott. A
regular at the five-star Al-Rasheed hotel, Stott was in 1991 head of
international sales and marketing for the Australian Wheat Board – then a
government agency – when the US and its allies went to war with Saddam Hussein
to drive his forces out of Kuwait.

That war had put a stop to Australia’s lucrative wheat trade with Iraq – but only temporarily. Within 48
hours of hostilities ceasing – an estimated 158,000 Iraqi soldiers and
civilians had been killed by allied forces – Stott was back in familiar
territory. The first western businessman allowed into Iraq after the ceasefire,
he was an old hand when it came to negotiating wheat deals with Baghdad and was
quickly on the doorstep of his longtime friend and trading colleague, Zuhair
Daoud, director-general of the Iraqi Grains Board.

Stott often travelled with more than one
passport – and with the government’s approval. In the sometimes furtive world
of international trade, it was a simple method to avoid some countries
following your trail and working out with whom you had been negotiating. This
time, Stott’s brief from the Australian government, which only days before had
been a sworn enemy of the Iraqis, was to “try to resume our wheat trade with
them”. Naturally, they didn’t want their allies to know…

You can
guess the rest – but there’s a fascinating cast involved, including then
foreign minister Gareth Evans and senior Reserve Bank staff including the then
assistant governor (services), Geoff Hodgkinson, and his boss Bernie Fraser.

The really
interesting person is Stott. He’s now General
Manager, Landmark Activities, at the AWB – but have a look at his CV:

Joined AWB in
2000. Mr Stott is responsible for Landmark rural services, which includes
procurement, merchandise, fertiliser, wool, real estate, livestock and AWB’s
seeds business. Prior to this, Mr Stott was responsible for strategy and
business development, investments, mergers and acquisitions. Previously, he was
General Manager, International Sales and Marketing. Mr Stott has worked with
BHP Petroleum, where his positions included Project Director and International
Business Development Manager. Prior to BHP, he was with the Australian Wheat
Board and held various roles including Marketing Manager for the Middle East,
Europe and Africa…

BHP. The other company involved. As the
Sydney Morning Herald has reported:

The 1995 deal between BHP and the then
Australian Wheat Board to supply Iraq with a $US5 million wheat credit is
central to allegations that senior wheat board executives were aware kickbacks
were being paid to the former dictator’s government to secure wheat contracts.

At the time of the 1995 deal, Mr Stott was
the board’s Middle
East
marketing manager. A year later, he joined BHP as its international business
development manager, a job he held for four years. In 2000, he moved to AWB to
become global marketing manager.

These movements put him in a unique position
to assist the inquiry in uncovering the activities of AWB and BHP in Iraq. BHP said this week that the
wheat delivery was a humanitarian gesture.

The deal also involves Tigris Petroleum, a
company set up in 2000 by two former BHP executives and which sought the wheat
board’s help in recovering BHP’s $US5 million loan plus $US3 million in
interest in 2001.

Note that
date there – 1995. Under Labor.

Hoy
recently reprised his story with a short item on Stott .
It contained just as much colour as the first yarn: Stott travelling with more
than one passport; “suitcases stuffed with greenbacks” – and this:

Was the gold received by the AWB – clearly
imprinted with the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle – looted from Kuwait? And did the Australians know
this?

Just
rephrase that last point. Did the Labor government of the time know?

Opposition
foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd put on a great show on the 7:30 Report
last night.

“John
Howard has written terms of reference for the Cole Commission of Inquiry which
enable only the commissioner to make findings and conclusions about the actions
of the AWB and to make no findings at all in relation to the actions, knowledge
and decisions of the Howard government,” he said.

That is
why we have from day one, and continue to call to this day, for John Howard, if
he is a person of any integrity… to widen these powers, widen the terms of reference,
so that Commissioner Cole can make findings about the government as well.”

Which
government, Kevin? Saddam Hussein seems to have been an old, reliable customer
of Australia.

Peter Fray

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