This Saturday, federal election day, marks the first anniversary of the completion of Commissioner Terence Cole QC’s report into the AWB kickbacks scandal which saw $300 million in bribes passed to Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime.

Cole’s five-volume report recommended criminal charges be laid against 12 people, including 11 former AWB managers. But nothing has happened. No charges have been laid. Ever quick to prosecute swarthy natives of the Moslem faith, the Federal Attorney-General’s Department has taken no steps to implement the Cole recommendations.

And time is running out. According to one legal source, there is a five-year statute of limitations on some of the offences: if charges are not laid before the end of this year, the alleged offenders could escape prosecution altogether. One explanation for the tardy behaviour of the Howard Government to push AWB prosecutions is this: all of the accused have retained high-powered legal teams who are armed with documents and testimony proving beyond any doubt that AWB’s illegal wheat sales to Baghdad were sanctioned by Cabinet ministers.

One of the prime participants in the bribes scandal, Dr Ashton Calvert AC, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the critical years between 1998 and 2004, died last week. Calvert, who became a Rio Tinto director after leaving government service, was never called before the Cole Inquiry in what was a scandalous lapse of judgment but his colleagues say that his meticulous overview of the bribes-to-Saddam affair are held in the vaults of the department.

If Labor wins on Saturday, perhaps the incoming foreign minister can locate the Calvert dossier, publish it and commence the prosecution of the AWB personnel. Cole exonerated Prime Minister John Howard, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Transport Minister Mark Vaile but history may not be so generous.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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