I
have seen or heard nothing that makes me think Prime Minister John
Howard was other than genuinely surprised when he received a
departmental minute alerting him to a complaint by Paul Volcker that
Australia was not providing sufficient cooperation to his UN inquiry
into Iraq’s oil-for-food program. Mr Howard’s hand written notation of
11 February 2005 that “there must be maximum cooperation and
transparency” strikes me as having an element of Prime Ministerial
surprise that his intervention was even necessary.

To me it is
quite believable that Mr Howard himself did not see the many cables and
other pieces of paper about AWB bribes addressed to him in the months
before the minute quoting Mr Volker as saying that the approach of the
Australian Government was “beyond reticent, even forbidding.” These
days the words “Prime Minister” in the address line mean nothing more
than letting someone in the office of the Prime Minister know. And
there is a marked reluctance among staff members and public servants
alike to send any minister pieces of paper saying things that they know
their boss will want to be able to deny knowing about. The only reason
the Volker comments were put in the Howard in-tray was because some
staffer decided a failure to respond would eventually become public in
a United Nations report.

These days ministerial responsibility
means nothing more than ministers being responsible just for actions
they directly perform. The need for ministerial deniability is now
paramount so ministers do not directly probe into suggestions of
maladministration or worse. There was a clear example of this approach
when then Agriculture Minister Warren Truss back in August 2002
responded to suggestions that the AWB was making slings to Iraqi
officials by saying “don’t give me that bull shit. The Wheat Board is
run by farmers of great integrity and honesty, they wouldn’t do that
sort of thing.” (See There are None so Blind But Does it Matter?). The
last thing Mr Truss wanted to do was to make an inquiry himself into
whether there might by anything in the allegations being made by
American and Canadian grain traders. He might have found the truth.

This
ministerial policy of “see no evil, hear no evil” is not an invention
of the Howard Government, but a decade in office has seen it rise to
new levels. For the Opposition Leader Kim Beazley this presents an
opportunity. The Democrats in the US are having considerable success in
portraying President George W. Bush as a politician whose word cannot
be trusted. There might be limited public interest in the ethics of an
exporter paying bribes but there could be in a Labor policy to return
honesty, openness and accountability to the system of government. A
start would be a commitment to the traditional meaning of ministerial
responsibility combined with a return to a public service that was
independent and impartial in fact as well as name.

Peter Fray

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