A Grain of Truth


Why did John Howard decide to allow a commission of inquiry into the activities of the AWB?

Howard is not noted for having a conscience. Many people of good intent requested that he hold a commission of inquiry or royal commission into the detention of refugees, children overboard, and the sinking of SIEV X. Howard refused. On the list of overdue commissions of inquiry are: national infrastructure, water, health, education and taxation; but again Howard has done nothing.

So why did he decide that the first full commission of inquiry in his prime ministership with the powers of a royal commission would be into the activities of the AWB?

Was it a result of US pressure? A hard-to-resist call from President George W Bush who, in turn, was responding to US wheat growers?

Or was it Howard’s own desire to discredit the AWB in order to get rid of the single desk? Howard and many members of the Liberal Party see the Australian single desk as a hangover from Country Party Socialism. (They want market forces to operate, which many believe would reduce prices to growers.)

Whatever the reason, the decision was incredibly stupid.

The AWB did not make the market, it reacted to the market. And part of that market was the bidding war over commissions led by the US. In international trade the Americans play with their elbows, fingers, knees, teeth and boots. The AWB responded, and they were effective. Whatever the AWB did they did for the growers Australians farmers. They were not seeking to feather their own nests.

A significant change in the equation occurred in mid-2002, when bellicose statements and sabre rattling on the part of Howard and Downer had the Saddam Hussein regime threatening to cease buying wheat from Australia.

Howard and Downer were appalled and urged the AWB to take whatever steps were necessary to secure the wheat trade with Iraq. ‘Whatever it takes’ is an approach Howard is familiar with as witnessed in the children overboard affair, his over-the-top reaction to terrorism, his Industrial Relations laws and his catch-all anti-terrorism laws.

The AWB understood the wheat trade, they understood the modalities of doing business in the Middle East, and they understood the predatory intentions of the US. The AWB, together with other Australian companies, have been involved in meeting the demands and dictates of the markets for several decades.

It was the Labor Party who first gave the AWB the green light to trade aggressively. So what is the Shadow Foreign Affairs, Trade and International Security Minister, Kevin Rudd, on about? Does he really believe that he can nail Howard and some of his ministers over this? Hardly. Howard is too cunning to leave a paper trail that would incriminate him on this or any other issue.

The moral outrage expressed by Opposition Leader Kim Beazley and Rudd over payments to Saddam Hussein might be a little more convincing had similar Australian trade and defence arrangements not been in place with Suharto and supported by the Labor Party while his regime tortured, murdered and raped people in East Timor, Aceh and West Papua. The Opposition’s moral outrage might be better expressed over refugees in detention and the continued marginalisation of the disadvantaged, including Aboriginal Australians.

Rudd is acting as a stalking horse for the American wheat growers and traders, and for that matter, so are the commission and John Howard.

Collectively, they have embarked on a course of action that could wreck Australia’s international wheat market. More broadly, Australia’s trade advantages and reputation will be damaged. Who will now want to enter into a deal securing arrangements with Australian companies if they think these arrangements might be subject to an official inquiry and splashed in media outlets around the world?

Howard did not have to have this inquiry. He could have told his American friends and his Liberal Party urgers that the affairs of the AWB should remain ‘commercial in confidence’. After all, he heads the most secretive Government since Federation. In seeking short-term gain (the end of the AWB and single desk) he has caused long-term pain.

And can we really believe that Howard, Rudd and Beazley are so naïve that they do not understand how the real world of trade actually operates? Perhaps we should, considering none of them have had a real job outside of politics.

By any yardstick both sides have been incredibly stupid over this issue.

If the National Party seriously wants to differentiate itself from the Liberal Party and represent the interests of rural Australia it might start by defending the AWB and the single desk.

The AWB deserves better for all the years of hard work it has put in on behalf of wheat growers. The manner in which senior officials have been spoken to during the course of the commission hearings to date is disgraceful. Is this the face of the future?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.