So… John Howard, senior members of his cabinet and a squad of senior bureaucrats were warned in April 2001 that Iraq was trying to corrupt the oil-for-food program by forcing the AWB, to pay kickbacks. Or as The Oz put it across page one today: “Everyone in Canberra knew”.

A diplomatic cable from Australia’s permanent mission to the UN in New York tabled at the Cole Inquiry yesterday went to the PM, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer, Trade Minister Mark Vaile and then-minister for agriculture Warren Truss.

The warning was also circulated to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – to Secretary Ashton Calvert and dep secs Pamela Fayle, John Dauth, David Spencer and Alan Thomas – Austrade, the Attorney Generals Department, the Defence Department, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

The cable clearly outlined Iraq’s plan to extract US dollars from AWB by demanding a levy of 50c a tonne on wheat before it was unloaded and warns of “anecdotal and in some cases hard evidence of Iraqi purchasers and agents demanding fees from suppliers, in contravention of the sanctions regime”.

And as reports observe today, while the cable does not say AWB had agreed to pay bribes, it is at odds with the Government’s claim that it never investigated claims that AWB was funnelling money to Saddam Hussein’s regime because it believed the allegations were simply rumours made up by rival wheat-selling nations.

While Brendan Nelson may have been taking a mental break on the Riviera at a presser with the PM at Parliament yesterday, John Howard remained ferociously focused. That morning Commissioner Cole issued an invitation for anyone with information about kickbacks or the oil-for-food scandal to appear before his inquiry – especially Members of Parliament and public servants.

The PM declined:

I have no knowledge of this issue beyond the material which is in the possession of the Government and which has been provided. And I have made it clear to all the Departments that all documents relevant to the matters under discussion before the commission, and that includes clearly the involvement of officials and the involvement of Ministers, that that documentation should be provided. So the commission has all the material from the Government, so I am advised and certainly in accordance with the instruction I’ve given, if there are any questions the commission has in relation to the material or evidence or whatever description you want to give it that they already have, well we would obviously be willing to respond. But I don’t have anything further to offer other than a repetition of what I’ve previously said…

I’ve given him my documents, he’s got my file, he’s got Mr Downer’s file, he’s got the Defence Minister’s file, he’s got the Attorney-General’s file, he’s given notices to produce to all these government departments – and let him do his job.

We think – think – the PM was trying to say that the truth lies in the documents. Which means his problems may have suddenly got a lot bigger. Expect more chit-chat on this issue.

Peter Fray

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