As the Cole inquiry into the AWB spirals onward and outward, it begins to open up new and fascinating vistas into the workings of our government and its associated bureaucracies. The scope here is enormous.

No longer is this inquiry just about what a few cowboys at AWB did with large bits of our hard-earned surplus, the latest hearings have already brought BHP Billiton into the picture. And it’s no longer restricted to the shenanigans in Iraq. Already Jordan and Pakistan have been mentioned as other places of interest to the inquiry. And now the AWB lads are starting to sing like canaries, bringing with them copies of emails, letters, diaries and selective memories of conversations with senior bureaucrats (and higher) from all over Canberra.

Senior Howard Ministers are having to line up and jostle for their chance to front the media scrum and deny allegations, clarify statements, or just be suitably outraged. The pressure is starting to tell. Matt Price, in today’s The Australian, compares our Deputy Prime Minister  to Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther movies. When this kind of ridicule starts spreading, then a political party is in real trouble.

Deputy PM Mark Vaile, as well as Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and the Prime Minister himself, have all been drawn into the elaborate dance of denial in Canberra, and there’s plenty more fancy footstepping to come. The choreography looks pretty chaotic at the moment, but if you squint and turn your head to one side, you can already discern the general outline of the Government’s rebuttal strategy.

First, there will be a lot more of the heavy blanket of denial ‘We knew nothing’ they will explain in measured and sonorous tones. This is called the Sergeant Schultz Response and seems to work a treat with the Australian electorate as a whole.

Thanks to Leahy

The heavy blanket of denial quickly morphs into the deep doona of un-interest when deployed by the Prime Minister. His major weapon over the past ten years when confronted with any serious crisis of confidence in his Government has been to hit the airwaves over and over again, and deny, explain, repeat himself, elaborate, qualify, confute, mitigate, swerve, muddy, a double pike, with a twist and two somersaults and he’s away! He bores listeners and viewers into submission. Keep an ear out for the radio shock jocks and the ABC news programs if you see or hear Howard doing his ‘deep doona’ thing with the Cole inquiry, then you know someone’s done an opinion poll that shows it’s biting as an issue in the mortgage belt.

Meanwhile, you can also bet your farm subsidy that the Nationals and other ‘regional MPs’ will continue to comment on how the AWB ‘so-called scandal’ is just not an issue in the Bush you know, out there among the tumbling tumbleweeds where men are men, especially Bill Heffernan. As if that were a barometer of the seriousness of the issue! If anything, it’s yet another reason to question the relevance of the Nationals and their worldview. And the Right-wing commentariat will trot out a variant of this argument when they reveal (Shock! Horror!) how little the issue is biting. They will use it as a way to (yet again) portray the issue as another in a litany of whinges from the out-of-touch, undemocratic, elitist Left (I think they mean you and me).

Another counter argument has already been deployed by Minister Vaile who has started saying that it wasn’t his job or any other honest Aussie’s job to know which suitcase had the money and which was full of odd socks — it was the UN’s job. They have an office for that sort of thing. You remember the UN that mob Howard and Bush and Blair ignored a few years ago because they said it might be a tad illegal to invade Iraq? The same mob that Howard and Ruddock ignored when they reported that we might like to treat asylum seekers more like people? Well apparently, there’s some guy in an office in Geneva or New York who was supposed to keep track of the tonnes of itsy-bitsy grain and those suitcases full of cash and socks as they criss-crossed the deserts of Arabia and the sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean. And, gosh, this UN guy must have been on a flex the day it all happened.

Of all the Government counter arguments, Foreign Minister Downer’s response has been the most creative. He’s argued that all this kerfuffle just proves how necessary the invasion of Iraq was. Only now can we hope to be rid of the corrupt legions of bureaucrats, lorry-drivers and snakecharmers that infested every echelon of Saddam’s Baath Party. This is brilliant stuff, because not only is it a distraction as an argument, it also immediately summons inarticulate feelings of sympathy and fellow-feeling for our fine upstanding Aussie negotiators who were led down the slippery slope of bribery, corruption and inflated transport levies by those nasty moustachioed chaps (they’re always a little suss, aren’t they?).

So, the Government’s arguments can be boiled down to this: it wasn’t us (the AWB) who were corrupt or shonky, and it wasn’t us (DFAT and others) who were incompetent boobs, it was those dodgy Iraqis and that UN guy who took a rostered day off, respectively. And anyway, we never knew anything, and nobody told us. And what’s more, it’s a tough business, the bribing-people-to-buy-our-wheat business. It takes tough men to do it right. And we Aussies are tough. Real tough (cut to beer ad).

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Kim and Kevin are asking some pretty tough questions in Parliament. But does anyone else get the feeling they’re going through the motions and don’t really expect to find a ‘smoking gun’ in the form of a ministerial letter acknowledging and approving of illegal activity?

The Cole inquiry is a dangerous time for the ALP too. They need a scalp and it needs to be a senior one, otherwise they will look more ineffectual, disorganised and demoralised than ever.

What’s even more serious for Beazley and his strategists is that they will need to prove to a deeply cynical electorate that they would have done things differently or, at the very least, that they would put in place measures to ensure that this kind of thing will never happen under a future Labor Government. I can’t wait for that set of words.

And for we voters, the challenge will be to stay engaged right up to (and beyond) the moment Cole brings down his report. Will we miss it because there’s a football game or cricket match or international tiddlywinks championship happening that day? Will we care? Or will we just say ‘That’s what politicians do’ as we put another weet bix in the bowl or ask for a double wheat-grass shot with our smoothie?

José Borghino

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.