It’s always good to get out of the office, away from the pink carpet of the Canberra Press Gallery and the insular worldview that pervades within.
Gallery journalists are often lumped together as one amorphous mass by our critics. Apparently, we all see the world the same way and we all follow the same script. I’ve never believed that, and it’s even less true now, after a decade of the Howard Government.
What we Gallery journalists do suffer from, however, is a tendency to become preoccupied with issues that dominate the political class the white noise of political intrigue, the whiff of scandal, the ‘startling’ revelations that politicians mangle the truth or, at least, massage it to their own advantage.
And so it is with the AWB and the oil for food scandal. Last week showed us all of that.
On Monday, Market Street in Sydney’s CBD was swarming with camera crews, photographers and journalists. With all the publicity given to the arrival in town of Mick and Keith and the boys, many of the passersby thought we were waiting for the Rolling Stones. When we told them we were waiting for Mark Vaile they shrugged their shoulders and moved on. The AWB story is a preoccupation of a relatively small slice of the Australian community.
John Howard knows it.
So why has he gone to so much trouble? Why are we having this performance? Why did he establish an inquiry with the powers of a royal commission? He didn’t for ‘kids overboard,’ for SIEV-X, or for any number of other similar scandals that diverted the inner-city cognoscenti.
Thanks to Ragget
Is it because this has the potential to be far bigger and far more damaging? Is it because the Americans and the United Nations are involved? Is it because it may have the potential to seriously harm our international reputation as fair traders and as honest political brokers?
Not to mention the fact that, while we were planning to go to war with the Saddam regime, an Australian company was paying the evil dictator hundreds of millions of dollars in kickbacks. Even after Saddam had been blasted into a foxhole in the desert, AWB executives were appointed to positions within Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority in order to maintain our stranglehold on the Iraqi wheat market.
And despite the plethora of warnings about what AWB was doing, our ministers seem to have been walking around not so much with their eyes shut but if you believe their sworn evidence with no one else prising them open. As John Agius counsel assisting the Cole Commission remarked somewhat incredulously during his cross examination of Vaile on Monday, ‘It was big news and some dreadful things were being said about AWB.’
Vaile claimed not to have noticed. He was ‘snowed under.’ And anyway, he was inclined to dismiss it all as just commercial rivalry. He believed AWB’s reassurances and he did nothing himself to make any further inquires.
In the box, Vaile didn’t look good. He was nervous. He couldn’t recall so many times that many of the regulars among that strange group of interested onlookers who queued everyday to secure a seat in the Inquiry could barely contain their giggles. And anyway, he said, it was more a responsibility of the Minster for Foreign Affairs.
When the Foreign Minister’s turn came, Alexander Downer also said he didn’t see all the cables that his office received, and that he relied on his knowledge of AWB’s record in Iraq as reassurance. He pushed the responsibility even further away, to the UN itself. ‘At no time had the United Nations concluded, in all of those years, that AWB had been acting in breach of the sanctions regime,’ he said. All of it said in the full knowledge that the UN Sanctions Committee had made it clear from the very beginning that the primary responsibility for ensuring that there were no breaches of the sanctions regime lay with the exporting country.
No alarm bells there. No independent inquiries.
By Thursday, when John Howard appeared, the pattern had been set. The atmosphere in the packed little room on the fifth floor of 55 Market Street was fetid. The air-conditioning could barely cope as the numbers of journalists keen to get a view was swelled by another influx from the Press Gallery.
But the questioning from Cole and Agius was a gentle, once-over-lightly exercise. Commissioner Cole wouldn’t allow any cross examination by lawyers acting for AWB either. We were left wondering what it was all for, really. Howard’s appearance delivered nothing unexpected and the questioning was hardly designed to draw out anything new. His appearance was for show, and it’s hard not to conclude that’s the case for the whole Inquiry.
From the beginning, the Inquiry’s terms of reference were set carefully to ensure it would not be possible to make any findings about ministerial responsibility, one way or the other.
For the 14 weeks of sittings, AWB executives have been grilled. They’ve been embarrassed, and they’ve been shown to be the liars and greedy fools that they were. But why didn’t the Government know? And shouldn’t they have acted on the warnings?
At the end of this process, we still have no answers. What we’ve been given is a highly orchestrated public display of ‘openness and transparency.’
Unlike Mark Vaile, who ran the media gauntlet on his way in, or Alexander Downer, who avoided the unsightly chaos on the street below and caught the monorail to the Inquiry, Howard walked through Pitt Street Mall and down Market Street in full public view. His walk-though was conducted under the tightest security. The public and the media were given a good view but the PM was well protected. Inside the Inquiry it was no different.
It wasn’t a bad show but, by all accounts, the Rolling Stones put on a better one.
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