At the Cole Face


Watching the farce of the Cole Commission proceedings over the past months, and now faced with the resulting whitewash, very much reminded me of the commissions of inquiry the White South African Government conducted usually as a result of international pressure into apartheid-driven crimes which the Government had actually instigated.

It was one of my duties, as a young Australian diplomat based in South Africa, to report on these distortions of justice. Even before the proceedings began, all involved knew that the government, the police or whatever other branch of authority had transgressed the appallingly low standards of honesty and common decency that prevailed in South Africa at that time would be exonerated.


For example, the inquest into the death in detention of Steve Biko found his death was an accident. No one was to blame and all was fine and dandy for the South African Government until the truth came out.

And so it will be for John Howard and the AWB.

The firewall erected within the Cole Commission’s terms of reference to protect the Howard Government was breathtaking in its audacity. Constrained by his terms of reference and fearing a mass breakout of the truth through leaks, Cole decided to let all public servants in DFAT off the hook.

Thanks to Paul Batey

Eleven former AWB executives and one former BHP-Billiton executive were not so lucky. Having been named by Cole as warranting further investigation for possible criminal offences, watch now as the Government moves to make them scapegoats.

But not all of these men will go quietly. Already there are QCs and SCs releasing statements in defence of their clients. Already ‘AWB figures’ are singing tunes they couldn’t remember while being grilled by Cole. Witness Richard Baker and Dan Silkstone’s report in yesterday’s The Age:

The Government knew, and what about the UN? They knew everything,’ said one AWB figure. ‘It’s like Breaker Morant all over again. If I go to trial, then Downer will be the first witness called, that’s a promise. My QC will rip him to shreds.’ Another AWB executive said: ‘This is ridiculous. None of us got any personal profit, it all went to the farmers everything was approved by the AWB, by our lawyers and the Government.

The collateral damage from the Cole Inquiry even extends to those seemingly exonerated. Take Andrew Lindberg, for example. Cole has cleared him but at what cost? As another report in The Age said:  

But the biggest surprise was those who will escape criminal investigation, including former chief executive Andrew Lindberg Mr Lindberg gave faltering evidence to the Inquiry, claiming he could not recall key dates and events and being asked by counsel assisting, John Agius, SC: ‘Are you a complete fool?’

No matter what Cole’s recommendations, there will be some who will continue to wonder how a former chief executive of the AWB could possibly not know what was going on around him. While others will concur with one barrister’s assessment: ‘Look at Mr Lindberg, no recommendations are made against him but the process destroyed him.’

The shrill, somewhat hysterical and arrogant response of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to Cole’s Report gives an indication of his initial fear and subsequent relief that neither he nor any member of his Department had been fingered by the Inquiry.

Howard’s reaction has been too cocky by half. The tabling of the Cole Report is only the beginning of a political process that will run, outside of his control, for a considerable period of time.

It is likely that this process will have outcomes not intended and not foreseen when Howard bowed to US pressure and established the Cole Commission November 2005. Already the American wheat industry is starting to circle, confident in the knowledge that it has the backing of the newly ascendant Democrats, and looking to take legal action against AWB. With annual subsidies of $4.2 billion, they want an end to the Australian selling mechanism of the ‘Single Desk,’ whereby all Australian wheat exports are funnelled through the AWB.

With typical, in-your-face brass they claim that the Single Desk distorts the market. The fact that our major wheat competitor wants an end to the Single Desk seems to me to be a very good reason to keep it, but watch as the cracks open up between the Nationals and Liberals over this.

Proposed US inquiries into the AWB might uncover things that Cole couldn’t, namely the extent of support and co-operation between the Australian Government and the AWB in selling wheat, particularly to Iraq.

The fact that the Cole Commission failed to reveal this relationship, which has existed for at least three decades, was the aspect of the Inquiry that most tested my credulity. I worked with the AWB and its predecessor the Australian Wheat Board both overseas and in Australia during the course of a 25-year career in DFAT. The nature of the relationship between the AWB and the Government has always been easy, close and informal. Both organisations shared the objective of advancing the national interest through the sale of wheat and the creation and retention of markets. Information to advance these objectives was passed verbally and in writing. Politicians and diplomats enjoyed an equally close relationship with the AWB.

Faced with the threat of losing the Iraqi wheat market and the prospect of strong and sustained criticism from the National Party heartland, if that occurred why wouldn’t the Government strongly indicate that they would like the market secured? Because of the nature of the close relationship, the AWB responded.

The Government probably had no idea how much money was involved and nor did they want to. Because of its previously close relationship with the Government, the AWB no doubt had the expectation that it could count on protection in the event of any difficulty occurring. What the AWB didn’t foresee was Howard collapsing in the face of the Volcker Inquiry’s Report in October 2005 and his ditching of them as the Government scrambled to save itself.

Just as the Biko inquest and other whitewashing commissions of inquiry put together by the South African regime served only, in the end, to discredit and diminish that regime, so too has the Howard Government’s nobbling of the Cole Commission belittled Australia and further undermined our notion of ministerial and public service accountability.

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.