A Rotten Harvest


The Government will get nothing out of the Commission except confirmation of its double dealing and lack of loyalty to those it puts in the firing line. The AWB, successful wheat trader of three decades, will be taken to the cleaners and it will take some time to regain its reputation. The Australian wheat trade has been adversely affected by the scandal, Australia’s international trading reputation has been damaged and the single desk put under threat (see my previous article  in New Matilda for more on this issue).

The Cole Commission will do nothing to free international trade from corrupt practices.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson.

From the evidence emerging at the inquiry, there seems little doubt that the Howard Government backed the AWB until confronted by the UN Volker report in early 2005. It eventually succumbed to US pressure and agreed to hold an inquiry.

The upshot is that the Cole Commission has substantially harmed Australian trade at a time when our trade deficit reached a record $473 billion in February following 46 consecutive monthly trade deficits. Under these circumstances, I would have thought Howard would be doing all in his power to foster trade, not impede it.

Dispatching Vaile to Iraq was a political move without substance. Howard is naïve if he thinks looking into the eyes of a senior Iraqi official and getting promises is worth a pinch of sand. The current lot of Iraqi Ministers and officials might be gone in six months.

Even before Vaile went to Iraq, local officials in Baghdad had stated that they wanted to continue to buy Australian wheat. They like it. It is among the world’s best milling grain. Why then did the AWB have to pay bribes? Who was distorting the market? Having high quality wheat much in demand, the AWB should have been able to sell with a minimum of ‘facilitation.’ (We need look no further than the highly subsidised competing wheat sellers of the US, Canada and Eastern Europe for the answer.)

It is to Australia’s shame that the so-called AWB scandal has secured more intense media coverage and Opposition focus than the Howard Government’s detention policies. The media were handed this issue on a silver platter by Volker. They have done little to check his facts or establish who else was involved in passing kickbacks to Saddam Hussein. The Cole Commission has similarly provided easy pickings. The spoon feeding of the media has only served to highlight the paucity of investigative reporting in Australia over the past decade.

The payment of bribes cannot be condoned, domestically or internationally. However, it is easier to attempt to eradicate bribery from domestic commercial activities than it is internationally. Howard has made the task more difficult by turning his back on multi-lateral and international organisations in preference to bi-lateral arrangements (like the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement).

But just as bribery must be eschewed, so must insider trading. An interesting sideshow to the Cole Commission is the revelation that former Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, Senator Bill Heffernan and Community Services Minister John Cobb all failed to record ownership of AWB shares in the pecuniary interests register of Federal Parliament. Anderson sold his Class B AWB shares just three months after AWB officials briefed politicians in Canberra in June 2005.

Anderson ‘s failure to record the sale of these shares was bad enough, but the damage was compounded by his failing to register his Class A shares. He has protested his innocence, but this kind of forgetfulness makes him a political liability. Cobb immediately and publicly sought to correct the record and update the register.

Which brings us to Beazley, who wants us to accept his high moral outrage over the AWB. This, after his failure to lay a glove on Howard with respect to Tampa and the ‘children overboard’ affair. Since that time, the Labor Party has found it nigh impossible to be taken seriously when it seeks to take the moral high ground, particularly in the absence of substantial positions on the invasion of Iraq, the detention of refugees, and Guantánamo Bay detainee David Hicks.

Given the way this Government goes about its business, the Labor Opposition should easily be able to keep it permanently on the back foot. Sadly, the opposite is true. Labor wouldn’t need Cole and the AWB if it had developed comprehensive policies on renewal and development of infrastructure, education, health, aged care, Aborigines, the environment and refugees.

Beazley’s false passion and paucity of ideas only serve to highlight what a disgrace the Labor Party has become under his leadership.

The AWB fiasco should serve once and for all as a lesson on how the Howard Government has sought (and achieved) outcomes by employing whatever it takes the end justifies the means.

From evidence now turning up at the Cole Commission, it’s clear that the Howard Government could have moved much earlier to curb the corrupt practices at AWB. And if Howard is fair dinkum about his reasons for setting up the Cole Commission he should now authorise a judicial inquiry into the Department of Immigration just imagine what that would uncover!

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.