For once Kim Beazley was straight to the point. There’s a “smoking
artillery pack
” of evidence leading straight to the Government at Cole. How do we blow away the
clouds of cordite? Go for the people at the top. Get ministers in the witness
box.

Not that
that will be easy. Look at Caroline Overington in today’s Australian:

Imagine just for a moment you are the Foreign
Minister, Alexander Downer.

In June 2003, you receive a top-secret cable
from your staff in newly liberated Baghdad
that says: “Every contract (signed under the UN’s oil-for-food program)
included a kickback to the regime.”

How many ways do you think you could read a
sentence like that?

Could you read it to mean “some
contracts” contained a kickback to the regime? Or “most
contracts”, or even “all contracts except Australia’s wheat contracts”
contained a kickback to the regime? Of course not.

Yet that is exactly what Downer is claiming
this week.


It’s like Bill Clinton and his “it all depends on the meaning of ‘is’”
line to Kenneth Starr. Almighty, unprecedented obfuscation. At the
moment it is impossible not to conclude that wheat sales to Iraq came
ahead
of enforcing sanctions.

Such an issue is a matter for ministers, not mid-ranking officials in
departments or various government authorities. Yesterday,
barrister Lachlan Carter, representing a group of AWB executives, told the Cole
inquiry he would be concerned if ministers weren’t called to give evidence. “If
we can cut to the chase, get to the people who had ultimate knowledge and
responsibility, it will save this inquiry a lot of time and will be more
efficient.” Spot on.

Senior
counsel assisting the commissioner, John Agius, says he has much material to
evaluate before making a decision on whether to call ministers. Journalists
covering Cole currently suspect that ministers may not be called. This means
the inquiry will stop short – several stages short – of the centre of power.

Cole
won’t be an inquiry. It will be a witch hunt – a selective search for some
suspects. A witch
hunt and a whitewash.

Peter Fray

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