AWB bosses were as good as convicted – and the Government exonerated – on all charges stemming from the Iraqi bribes affair in a slab of pieces over the weekend, but problems still remain.

Steve Lewis riffed nicely with John Howard’s 2004 campaign theme of “trust” in The Weekend Australian:

Determined to avoid any taint of culpability, Howard kept referring as a yardstick to a “test of reasonableness” to defend the performance of his Government and the bureaucrats who serve it.

But this is where his defence falls down. Using this yardstick, the public could reasonably ask: what’s the use of this vast apparatus when no one picked up the obvious warnings over AWB’s illicit behaviour?

This remains the central question and, unfortunately, it is unlikely to be adequately addressed when Commissioner Terence Cole hands down his report.

Howard can appeal for trust all he likes, but he cannot avoid the fact the kickbacks scandal has exposed deep flaws in his own administration. The public’s trust has been breached.

The best publicised example of this has been Alexander Downer’s “this worries me” – worries that were not acted on.

Yet at the same time the Prime Minister told Cole that he could not “with certainty say yes or no” as to whether any written record was kept in his office as to which pieces of unassessed intelligence were brought to his attention. He said he “would have to check that”.

That’s a standard Question Time line the PM uses when he doesn’t have an answer – and, yes, he is normally back in the House pretty promptly. What will happen here?

Alexander Downer received an insufficient answer to his request for information as to how wheat prices were set. We wouldn’t like the Commissioner to receive an insufficient answer in relation to written records of who saw unassessed intelligence, would we?

Peter Fray

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