John Howard is sending four intelligent men and their attendant secretariat around the country to listen to what farmers think should happen to the single desk and report back to him. It’s called throwing the Nats a bone, or perhaps just an empty can of dog food.

By implication, it’s also about what role AWB should have. Given the appalling performance of the AWB revealed in the latest annual report, the only option should be to cut this miserable company adrift with no hint of compensation or even vague assistance – but the farmers who voted for the AWB board and have an overwhelming vested interest as shareholders won’t see it that way.

The $6 million in severance payments to the AWB executives at the centre of Terence Cole’s recommendations for possible criminal prosecution makes a bad headline but the detail is worse.

The easiest example is Charles Stott who picked up $781,752 when he stood down on June 15. His total remuneration for the year including superannuation was more than $1.3 million. Stott was the little mate of the odious Norman Davidson-Kelly, the two of them at the heart of the most egregious part of the whole scandal – the Tigris affair whereby wheat prices were inflated to flick money through to Davidson-Kelly’s company.

Even the dopey AWB board realised Tigris wasn’t nice – but the board still paid out to Stott. One wonders if it will continue to pay his legal bills as well.

And the AFR reports this unflinchingly stupid board even now is resisting fresh blood. AWB is sticking to its own at the coming election, not wanting academic John McElvaney to join them.

John Howard may as well send John Ralph and co to ask the AWB board itself what should be done. The whole exercise reminds me of John Kerin’s biggest mistake in government – giving the wool farmers the floor price they wanted even when he knew it was the wrong thing for them and the industry. Ditto maintaining the single desk or giving AWB anything like a quasi-official role in Australian trade.

Peter Fray

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