So far, the Howard Government has more or less escaped the blame for the AWB’s behaviour in the UN oil-for-food program.
The Howard Government’s problems with AWB have not gone away, despite senior figures apparently successfully withstanding cross-examination by the Cole Inquiry into the United Nations oil-for-food program.
Following the appearances of Trade Minister Mark Vaile, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Prime Minister John Howard, the Cole Inquiry is set to wind up hearings and produce its findings on June 30.
The Prime Minister came away more or less unscathed while the two Cabinet ministers emerged as being perhaps, at worst, negligent in carrying out their duties and responsibilities.
Mr Howard says it never crossed his mind that AWB might have been paying bribes to Saddam Hussein.
But if the Government bears no responsibility for not overseeing the cracks in the system, who does?
Mr Vaile, in particular, revealed a serious failure to attend to the details of his job, a too-quick wish to blame others (namely Alexander Downer), as well as having a shocking memory.
As Trade Minister, Mr Vaile never once questioned what AWB might be getting up to, whereas Mr Downer did at least make some queries of his department without ever following them up.
Mr Vaile has stepped into the shoes of Tim Fischer and John Anderson, but is clearly yet to prove himself in the crucial role as Deputy Prime Minister.
None of the three men could recall reading any of the 21 cables sent up the line which may have alerted the Government that something fishy was going on with AWB.
However, it appears likely now that Terence Cole QC will find that the Government was kept in the dark by the wheat exporter, and that the ministers and their departments had little real inkling that the company was paying bribes to the former Iraqi regime.
At a political level, the Government will claim to be exonerated and will make much out of the frenzied media reporting and Labor claims that it was part of a grand conspiracy.
To some degree this will be true, but is far and away from being the complete story.
Labor, or more specifically Kim Beazley, made a tactical mistake in overcooking its claims of corruption earlier in the year.
Mr Beazley warned it would relentlessly pursue the Government – even to the point of setting up a second Royal Commission once Labor was returned to office.
Labor’s foreign spokesman Kevin Rudd has been more careful and forensic in his claims and has prosecuted the more likely case that the Government was happy to turn a blind eye to AWB’s dealings in Iraq.
In other words, it did not want to know.
The Howard Government wanted to join the United States and Britain and oust Saddam Hussein, but also wanted to keep Australian wheat farmers happy by selling wheat to Iraq right up until the invasion itself.
It was a tricky course anyway, but AWB was apparently prepared to deceive the Government and the United Nations which were both trying to stop payments going directly to Saddam Hussein.
For most of the three months that the Cole Inquiry has been conducted, the media’s frenzied interest has been matched only by an extraordinary lack of interest from the general public.
This changed somewhat when television news began showing the ministers and Mr Howard himself arriving at the commission through the media scrums.
But in terms of a “scandal”, the public appear to be uninterested, or even ambivalent, about the inquiry’s activities.
The public appear to accept that dealing in the Middle East requires at least some degree of incentive payments – even to a dictator.
They furthermore appear not to draw the distinction between these run-of-the-mill facilitation payments and those which circumvented strict UN sanctions – or, if it is important, it does not appear to be a priority concern.
But there is a growing disquiet that there is something wrong with a system of government where no one takes the blame when something goes wrong.
Ministers no longer stand up in Parliament and accept responsibility for the wrongdoings of their department.
In the case of AWB, the Government may not have known anything, but should the ministers involved have asked more questions? Should they have been more rigorous with AWB when so much was at stake?
Questions the Government still has to face include: what to do with the single selling-desk? Should aid agency AusAID be helping Australian companies secure deals overseas and paying consultants hundreds of thousands of dollars?
Commissioner Cole has been thorough up to a point, but has specifically avoided probing public servants and advisers about their knowledge – or lack of knowledge – about the problem.
The Government has more or less escaped the blame this time, but has shown that the system has massive gaps which provide the basis for another scandal to happen all over again sometime in the future.