Michael Pascoe writes:

The media reaction to any and every mention
of a Federal Minister’s name during the Cole inquiry is heading the way of the
boy who cried wolf and, in the process, the focus on the government’s real failing
is being lost.

Despite the headline writers’ best efforts
over a sample of Alexander Downer’s handwriting – The Terror: “Downer Bribe Denials Sunk“,
SMH: “It’s a worry – the Foreign Minister’s secret note on AWB“, Oz: “Downer “noted” worry at graft” – the only gun remains the one Trevor Flugge was pointing at the camera and
it wasn’t smoking either.

What has been consistently missing is any evidence
that any Minister knew what AWB was up to. They received tips that some people
thought AWB was paying Iraqi kickbacks, but every time the government went
through motions of verifying those tips, they came up against the blank wall of
AWB denials.

Yes, the motions were less than
intellectually rigorous, but the consistent attempts by both Labor and the
media pack to suggest a cover-up or conspiracy continue to fail.

What they’re overlooking in the process is
a less sensational but equally serious failing: the blinding effect of the
government’s cronyism. From Prime Minister to DFAT bureaucrat, the government
trusted the AWB mates. Whatever AWB directors and executives said was always
good enough for the Howard Government. AWB was a creature of the coalition
government and the government at times seemed to be an arm of AWB.

The most damning allegation for the
government to come out of the Cole inquiry so far is the one made by counsel
assisting, John Aguis, that DFAT’s checking on AWB went soft from mid-1996.
Aguis didn’t say it, but as we’ve all been recently reminded, that was when the
coalition was settling into their ministerial offices.

It was striking in the evidence Cole heard
about BHP how much DFAT was all over the original deal, compared with the “post
box” mentality that subsequently applied to AWB. It seems the various Ministers
may have not known AWB was up to no good, but the closeness of the relationship
between AWB and the coalition meant they were incapable of objective judgement.
That’s what cronyism does.

In his eventual report, Terence Cole will
form an opinion about who knew and didn’t know within AWB. Those who knew are offenders
in the first degree. The second degree will be those who should have known
within AWB or who did nothing constructive when they subsequently found out
(pretty much the entire board, it seems, in relation to the Tigris deal). The third degree
offenders are those who trusted the AWB but shouldn’t have.

From the last category, any bureaucrats who
exposed their bosses to discomfit will be punished, the rest will escape
damage. And all the ministerial class remains untouched. Keep looking for the smoking gun, gang, but
don’t waste your shock and awe factor over rubber bands in the process.

Peter Fray

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