Prime Minister John Howard now sees an awful prospect. The AWB inquiry that he initiated has snowballed into risking serious damage to Australia’s Middle East Muslim wheat markets, in aggregate perhaps the largest element of our wheat export trade. He is now pulling out all his tactical stops, sending Mark Vaile to Iraq and descending to an embarrassing level of insincere public bathos. I cannot resist quoting Crikey’s tart verdict (on Wednesday February, 15):
So why, exactly, should Iraqis think about individual Australian wheat growers? An estimated 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since Australia helped choreograph the little invasion of their country. Anyone in a position of authority is living with assassination as a daily possibility. And the Iraqis who are being asked to “think about individual Australian wheat growers” are experiencing the early days of a long and bloody civil war.
Despite all that, the prime minister wants Iraqis to think of Australian wheat growers - the same Australian wheat growers who control the dubious corporation that managed to sling Saddam Hussein $300 million under the table, who profiteered from that corruption by getting more for their wheat than it was worth and who mostly still support the idea of a single desk export monopoly because it magically obtains a premium for wheat sales.
One side-benefit of the AWB imbroglio is that at last people are beginning to pay attention to politicians’ precise words - as distinct from the general aura they try to project with their words. The patient work of writers like Don Watson in teasing out these techniques is at last bearing fruit. We really do know now that when our prime minister assures us, “My office has had no reports from ONA on that”, he means literally only this. He is not saying that ONA officials have not informally, for example, in the corridors before or after a meeting, briefed him or a staffer about that. To get that answer, you would have to ask him that precise question.
Similarly, we know now when any senior official is asked if she told a minister’s office about something, and she replies, “no such report was sent”, you really do need to ask her the supplementary question: “But did your department brief the minister or any ministerial staffer orally on this, for example by phone or in corridors, before or after any formal meeting?”
Former ASIS operative Warren Reed is right to distinguish between formal intelligence reporting and the constant, informal, deniable “buzz” that goes on orally, between senior intelligence officials and ministers or their staff. Of course at that level, the AWB kickbacks would have been discussed and quietly set aside as something on which ministers did not require formal reporting.
This latter variety of information to ministers is not going to be plausibly deniable for much longer, after the remorseless searchlight of truth that Cole is turning on the AWB dealings with the Wheat Export Authority and with government. Even if Cole lets DFAT off lightly, by calling as witnesses only lower-level officials and not exposing senior officials to questioning, enough has come out of this AWB Inquiry already to change the ground rules of questioning ministers and officials.
If we look back to children overboard and SIEV X - never the subject of judicial inquiry, though they should have been - opposition senators learned to their cost that loosely worded questions in the general area of public interest do not usually result in public servants releasing torrents of helpful information. These days, public servants are trained to give the minimum information required under the exact wording of the question, as long as they tell no direct discoverable lies. The evidentiary oath, “The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” has become a very loose approximation to the evidentiary games that are routinely played by official witnesses. So as a matter of improving governance, the AWB Inquiry is doing splendid things.
But at great cost to Australian farmers. And here the recklessly naïve American alliance-based opportunism of the Howard Government is now sadly evident. Consider: the government refused to have any judicial inquiry into SIEV X, children overboard, the misuse of pre-Bali bombings intelligence warnings, the abuse of faulty coalition intelligence about a mythical Iraqi WMD capability, or Australian ADF assistance in helping the United States cover up from the Red Cross its torture practices at Abu Ghraib. All these serious matters the government addressed either not at all or merely by internal inquiry, despite pressure from senate investigative committees.
But now, in setting up the AWB Inquiry a few weeks ago, Howard clumsily threw the Australian wheat trade to the tender mercies of Commissioner Cole, the present prime minister of Iraq, and our American and Canadian competitors.
“Please Sir, we won’t do it again - let us off our caning.” But it isn’t Howard being flogged here. It is our helpless wheat growers. What a damaging series of foreseeable events Howard has set in train, both by his government’s earlier connivance in serious discoverable graft, and now his decision to set up the Cole inquiry to expose it all. Of course the Cole inquiry cannot be stopped now - it has to pursue the truth to the end, let the chips fall where they may. Mostly, it is our vulnerable wheat growers who will suffer.