John Howard knows better than any politician that governments should not set up inquiries when they do not know what they will find. His handling of the two Cole Commissions of inquiry proved that.

The first one established the case that trade union blackmail was redistributing income from property owners to building workers and laid the foundation for laws lowering the incomes of workers along with the costs of construction. The second cleared the Coalition Government of direct responsibility for paying the blackmailers of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq so that continuing Australian wheat exports could contribute to the cost of weapons later used to fire at Australian troops.

It is safe to assume then that the Prime Minister has a pretty shrewd idea what just retired High Court judge Ian Callinan QC will find from his investigations into the origins of the equine influenza outbreak that has so upset pony club riders and the horse racing fraternity.

The difference this time is that Mr Howard is not expecting the inquiry, which he promised yesterday “will fully examine the investigation now being carried out internally by AQIS (the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service) and any other relevant material and documents”, to absolve his Government of responsibility.

Mr Howard clearly suspects there is no scapegoat to find for “any lapse of quarantine protocols”. This is purely and simply an exercise in damage control. What the inquiry will deliver is a delay in the guilty verdict against the government run Eastern Creek Quarantine Station until after the election.

As I wrote in Crikey on Friday, the damages claims from the equine influenza outbreak are bound to be enormous and so is the potential backlash from voters. The horse industry in all its facets has tens of thousands of participants as well as being a major employer and this horsey set is rightly angry that the quarantine system has failed them.

The reports this morning that the Australian Racing Board warned then Primary Industry Minister Warren Truss in 2004 and again in 2005 that changes to quarantine procedures on imported horses would expose the country to the kind of EI epidemic will increase the anger.

The terms of reference for Mr Callinan have not yet been determined and a PM trying to delay a finding for as long as possible will be in no hurry to finalise them. Yesterday Mr Howard even suggested that special legislation might be needed. “The inquiry will have full powers to subpoena witnesses and, if thought appropriate, conduct public inquiries”, he said, “and any legislation required to invest the inquiry with that power will be introduced into Federal Parliament when it reconvenes the week after next.”

Perhaps one useful addition to the terms of reference would be a look at whether the practice of shuttling stallions to Australia from other parts of the world, as well as flying in horses to compete in the Cox Plate and the Melbourne Cup, is worth the risk. The thoroughbred horse industry is the last bastion these days of breeding conservatism with standard bred horses joining other livestock industries years ago in flying in semen rather than semen producers.

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Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey