There is further evidence in the handling of the Kovco
affair of the way that John Howard has redefined the meaning of the words “the
Australian Government”. When bad things happen the Government is no longer
that whole apparatus stretching from the Cabinet table right down to the
transport clerk in the Department of Defence.

The Prime Minister was quick to
assure us yesterday that Kenyon International was responsible for flying the
wrong body to Melbourne. Certainly not the Government. Not even
the public servant or military officer who gave Kenyon the contract. That
official’s job, like so many in the new look Howard administration, has been
redefined to ensure there is a system of administration which enables political
superiors to disown just the kind of mistakes that occurred with the coffin.

The creation of AWB as a sharemarket listed company is
a perfect example of the new process. For 50 years wheat farmers were perfectly
happy to have a government-owned corporation efficiently handling their affairs
but there was always the danger for a Primary Industries Minister that the
realities of gaining export markets would prove embarrassing.

The backhanders to
Iraq, after all, started in the pre-private enterprise days and
perhaps there were a few advisers near the top of the government administrative
tree who knew it. Now the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Trade Minister and
all can blame a body they have no control of for seriously misleading them and
the United Nations.

To narrow the definition of “the Government” still more,
Mr Howard and his ministers exclude public servants and their own staff members
from it. Ministers can now claim that the Government knew nothing when they
don’t put their own signature on cables from people like Bronte Moules at
Australia’s UN Mission in New York. Details of Ms Moules’ cable of
10 April 2001 published in this morning’s Oz clearly warn of Iraq’s
attempt to extract “kickbacks and illegal commissions on contracts for
humanitarian supplies.”

This latest disclosure certainly makes you wonder why it
is that only relatively junior public servants have been questioned by the Cole
commission. I wonder if Ashton Calvert who was head of DFAT for most of the time
in question and at the time when the cables were received in DFAT read them and
if not, why not? Surely he would have passed information on to his Minister.

After all, he is the person who ultimately is responsible for sifting things for
the ministers’ attention. Alas we will never know but under the Howard
definition the head of Foreign Affairs is probably not a part of “the
Government” anyway.