The Canberra cognoscenti are once
more amazed. The Prime Minister has done it again. Masterfully, by
telling us what the ONA had told him about the AWB, John Howard may
have managed to wrap a lie in the truth.

The main cause of
intelligence failure is that intelligence always stands too close to
power and power corrupts, as the old aphorism goes. And when a
political storm breaks, intelligence is one of the first things that a
government puts under shelter.

Intelligence, after all, is about
the truth. Governments don’t want that blowing about in the wind.
There’s been some cracking coverage of the scandal over the weekend.

Top of the list has to be Paul Kelly’s pronouncements from the mountain in The Weekend Australian.

Kelly
is not just a brilliant political commentator, he is our foremost
popular historian of government and public affairs. Ironically, he is
also the man who uncovered the shame of Labor’s attempt to take a
donation from the Iraqi Ba’ath Party back in 1975.

“The AWB Ltd
kickbacks to Iraq constitute a permanent stain on the Howard
Government’s reputation, a failure of governance and a slowly building
test for Coalition relations over the wheat industry’s future. This may
be the worst instance of bribery in the history of Australia’s trade
relations,” he writes. “John Howard’s dilemma is exquisite – if his
Government had knowledge of the kickbacks it is culpable, but if it had
no knowledge then it is negligent.”

“AWB asked Foreign Minister
Alexander Downer and Trade Minister Mark Vaile not to publicly comment
on two contracts it signed with Iraq that had been inflated to recover
money for BHP affiliate, Tigris Petroleum“, Richard Baker and Leonie
Wood reported in The Age on Saturday.

Unfortunately, one of the most comprehensive articles isn’t online
– Peter Charlton’s “Wheat documents hard to find” from Saturday’s Courier-Mail:

Several times during his inquiry into the AWB’s involvement
in payments to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq regime during the UN oil-for-food
scheme, Commissioner Terence Cole has voiced his displeasure at the
lack of co-operation of Australia’s wheat seller.

Witnesses from
the ranks of AWB’s senior executives seem to suffer a kind of selective
amnesia, with “I can’t recall” a common response to questions from
counsel assisting, John Agius, SC.

Documents of relevance have
had to be pried out of AWB, including one produced on Wednesday that
showed the kickbacks paid by Australia’s monopoly wheat exporter were
disclosed in regular briefings prepared for the Government’s grain
regulator, the Wheat Export Authority, in 2001.

The documents, retrieved from AWB’s database, are the strongest evidence yet that the kickbacks were no secret at AWB…

The
reports are quite explicit: “The inland transport fees are paid via
Alia Transport Company in Jordan, who then pay the Ministry of
Transport in Iraq,” one says.

This prompted a quick response
from the WEA. It wrote to federal Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran,
saying it appeared the authority was not given those details. “I do not
believe WEA has the market briefs referred to in evidence provided to
the Cole inquiry today,” authority chief executive Glen Taylor said in
the letter.

Taylor said the authority would continue to search
for documents relevant to the Cole investigation. Agius told Cole on
Wednesday: “All will become clearer when we receive the WEA market
brief”…

If the WEA can find the market reports, the political trail to the Government is clearer.

The WEA is a statutory authority, unlike AWB Limited…

Production of the documents apparently prompted Prime Minister John Howard to appear on the ABC’s 7.30 Report in an attempt to minimise the political damage.

Interviewer
Kerry O’Brien asked him how neither he nor his ministers “joined the
dots”’ in 2003 as evidence of the kickbacks was becoming clearer and
the Government was preparing for war with Iraq.

Howard replied:
“Well, it is for the inquiry to make that finding. It is not for me to
make that finding or, with respect, is it for you. I can only repeat
what I’ve said before, and that is to that I had no knowledge nor did
Alexander Downer or Mark Vaile or other ministers have knowledge that
bribes were being paid.”

“I have looked at all of the documents brought to my attention and I do not believe, on the basis of what I’ve been told…”

The qualification is clear. “Documents that have been brought to my attention.”

What else is there?

Peter Fray

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