Brian Toohey still has had the best line
on the AWB scandal. He wrote in the Fin last weekend:

Individuals, not cultures, were responsible
for approving, condoning or ignoring the kickbacks. They should be nailed,
regardless of whether they worked for AWB, DFAT, or cabinet.

But
who’ll wear the blame?

Dennis Shanahan observed last week:

The Cole inquiry into AWB’s
payments to Saddam Hussein’s regime is
developing a momentum of its own.

Common sense suggests
there should have been some inquiries before the Volcker investigation at the
UN and now Cole in Sydney.

Common sense also says
that given the general acceptance of bribery to do business with the Iraqi
regime, that a program involving billions could not remain exempt.

Common sense is now linking
with evidence.

Yesterday’s disclosure
that an AWB email sent to Foreign Affairs containing a reference to
“kickbacks” in Iraqi contracts is the first real link between the
knowledge of kickbacks and the Howard Government.

Yet on Friday Peter Hartcher was
able to write in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Government staff
already have conducted a careful review of correspondence, memos and other
documents that flowed through the instrumentalities, departments and offices of
the Government on the matter.

This check found no
evidence that any minister in the Government was directly informed of the
systemic bribery in Australia’s wheat exports to Iraq, according to a
senior official.

So Howard, confident that his
ministers are safe, is prepared to weather the storm, as he has weathered so
many before.

At the same time, though, as
Malcolm Farr observed in yesterday’s Telegraph,
a $3.5 billion export industry could now face troubled times.

The Australianeditorialised on the weekend:

The more AWB officers admit to Terence Cole’s inquiry into the food-for-oil
scandal, the more reason there is to wonder if the Government is gullible,
duplicitous or worse…

But evidence is emerging that if
nobody knew, some people in Canberra should certainly have suspected
something odd was going on in Iraq. Canberra was alerted on at least five
occasions.

And Jennifer Sexton reports in the same
paper today:

Government officials who approved
AWB wheat contracts with Iraq failed to do a simple comparison
with world grain prices that would have exposed the 41 deals as vastly
inflated.

Kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime included
in the wheat contracts ballooned by 400 per cent in three years and pushed the
total amount paid for the Australian wheat to a world-wide high.

The Cole inquiry’s second whistleblower, former AWB
Middle East manager Dominic Hogan, said yesterday that had
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials checked international grain
market prices, they would have discovered five years ago that a premium of
about $US50 a tonne was being extracted from the UN account reserved for
humanitarian purposes.

Yet another missed opportunity. Back to that
Australian editorial:

That the bureaucrats were naive at
the time is manifest. But they are plain stupid if they think this explanation
gets them off the hook.

At best it seems they were
desperate not to upset arrangements that had made Australian wheat farmers a
great deal of money.

Will that money now be at risk – that $3.5
billion industry?

Barnaby Joyce and Bill Heffernan have said the AWB scandal is
purely people playing politics.

“It’s one of those typical Canberra things – an argument
for the elite but not for the street,” Joyce told ABC Radio
yesterday.

Wrong. If Australia’s wheat marketing now goes awry,
many people will suffer. The National Party’s constituency will be one of the
first. But the damage could spread wider, as Farr explained:

It’s possible the
efficient marketing of Australia’s output will be
hobbled for the remainder of this financial year, and perhaps radically
overhauled for future years.

If that overhaul harms
the wheat industry, the effects could be felt everywhere from interest rates
(if balance-of-trade figures are seriously slanted) to the price of a loaf of
bread for the kids’ lunches…

The Australian editorialised on the weekend:

Australians fought Saddam Hussein’s wretched regime twice in 15
years. Proof that the Government knew, or even suspected, AWB was paying off
the dictator, but did nothing to stop the bribes, would be a betrayal of the
men and women who risked their lives on active service. It is hard to conceive
of circumstances in which any minister so implicated could survive.

True. That’s the moral outrage. But
Australian’s concerns over this affair may well end up concentrating on bread
and butter issues – literally.

And they’ll want to know who was to blame.

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

JOIN NOW