Michael Pascoe writes:

There’s been an inevitability about Terence Cole seeking and John Howard granting an extension to the Iraq kickbacks inquiry. The former simply will have far too much material to properly digest by the end of this month, while for the latter, holding a hands-off inquiry has become his best defence of direct innocence.

The extension “for another couple of months at least” creates the certainty of extending the Government’s embarrassment, but the great uncertainty created by such an almost open-ended offer from the PM is where Cole’s inquiring mind might wander – and that will have plenty of other company executives worrying.

There’s a hint in The Oz this morning of the sudden concern that various corporations might have about what’s perhaps been done on their behalf in the past. While Cole has been specifically charged with investigating the oil-for-food scandal, could the behaviour of AWB and others in Iraq require some context and therefore an examination of what might have been common practice elsewhere in our trading world?

What could worry the wheat export monopolists is that the extra time might also give Cole the chance to look into the single desk itself and the question of whether a corrupt model inevitably corrupts. As we argued last week, there’s plenty to consider about the way the single desk has been run quite apart from the Iraq scandal.

The monopoly faithful – 70% or so of wheat farmers and the National Party they control – don’t want the AWB and WEA claims about the alleged benefits of the single desk exposed to genuinely independent analysis. It might be far too embarrassing.

In all likelihood, Tezza Cole will still be too busy to delve into the single desk, but the way is open for him to recommend a subsequent review.

In the meantime, the longer the inquiry runs, the less chance AWB has of recovering and the more experience its local competitors will gain in accessing pool wheat for export. There’s also the chance that other countries might follow Iraq’s lead in declaring AWB persona non grata.

At the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics’ Outlook conference last week, ABB Grain managing director Michael Iwaniw, admitted in answering a leading question that he, like every other red-blooded, pro-free-market capitalist, would love to have a monopoly. (I know the question was leading because I asked it.) While treading very carefully around the AWB and single desk issue, he made plain that ABB for one would very happily pick up where AWB leaves off exporting wheat.

The pain continues.