The Cole Inquiry has been extended. As The Age reports today:
“Prime Minister John Howard yesterday confirmed the
inquiry into the saga would be extended until “the end of May or June” — two to
three months after its original deadline of March 31 — to allow a “thorough”
probe… The later reporting date is set to cost taxpayers upwards of $4
million, on top of $6.8 million already set aside by the federal
Attorney-General’s Department.”

“While it may never be
conclusively proved that the top echelons of government knew for sure what the
AWB was up to in Iraq, it leaves Mr Howard – a masterful politician not known
for being caught on the back foot for lack of information – in the curious
position of pleading not guilty by reason of not asking questions,” The
Australian
editorialises.

But perhaps there’s a greater
degree of culpability there. The Prime Minister should have seen it coming. He
had another early warning – not in a diplomatic cable, but in a 2002 piece by Fairfax journalist
Louise Dodson. “These
days top public servants in Australia operate a lot like a secret
society,” Dodson wrote in an Age yarn headed “Why our top public servants won’t
say no, minister”:

While departmental heads were once
powerful and fearless enough to overturn decisions by their ministers – it
happened frequently during the Whitlam era – these days they are far more
cowed. After progressively losing permanent tenure under Hawke and especially
Howard, they are not inclined to stand up to their ministers. In theory,
departmental heads may be independent, but in practice the message from
headquarters is somewhat different – stay silent and loyal and you will be
looked after, even if you don’t get on with your minister and have to be moved…

Crikey has already explored how the government decides what information
it wants to receive – and what it doesn’t want to know about. But our mandarins
– obliging as they are – anticipate this. Dodson talked about the farewell dinner for former Defence Department
head Allan Hawke, whose three-year contract was unexpectedly not renewed in
2002:

At the time, sources close to
Defence Minister Robert Hill insisted that personal relations between the
minister and his top public servant were not the problem. Instead, Hawke was
viewed by his political masters as not having the necessary strategic skills to
steer the department during the national security challenge.

Plus, of course, there was the small matter of various Defence people
actually telling the truth over children overboard.

And Dodson had a curious quote from the then head of the Australian
Public Service, Max Moore-Wilton: “Just don’t tell the truth about some of our
conversations.”

If Hawke got the axe for telling the truth, who else from the top ranks
of our bureaucracy has been pushed or decided to jump? Where did they land? Suggestions,
please, to [email protected].

And it adds a “who did what when” dimension to the “who knew what when”
investigations that are at the very heart of Cole – and are causing so much
pain for the Howard Government. Back to the Oz today:

Mr Howard justifies Australia’s support of the US-led war to topple Saddam
on humanitarian grounds, arguing that it was imperative that the Iraqi people
should be liberated from the rule of an evil dictator. He should therefore
condemn in the strongest possible terms the subversion of a pre-war program to
alleviate the stress of ordinary Iraqis by the fraudulent payment of bribes to
their oppressor – yet his public comments on the kickback scandal have been
guarded to say the least.

We’re getting into Pig Iron Bob territory here. The Australian‘s leader
writers might care to add that an army marches on its stomach. We’ve had a
bellyful of equivocation from our Prime Minister. And Saddam’s regime was
nourished by our wheat.

Peter Fray

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