Nov 282006

The findings of Commissioner Terence Cole from his inquiry into “certain Australian companies in relation to the UN Oil-For-Food Program” have been delivered. After having been advised 35 times of seemingly untoward occurrences taking place in regard to Australian grain exports to Iraq, before, during and after the coalition invasion of that country, the Howard government and its officers has been found to be clear of criminal involvement.

Not so the officers of Australian Wheat Board International. Mr Cole has recommended possible criminal charges be laid against persons named in the report. Parliament will decide whether to act on the latter. The report makes for fascinating reading, and in doing so, one becomes almost immediately aware of the shortcomings, or rather, restrictions Mr Cole was required to operate within during his inquiry. Clauses 29.59 and 29.60 give clear indications of these restrictions.

The findings are copious, and for the officers of AWB, potentially disastrous, however, one needs to closely examine the role of government and its instrumentalities in this entire business, if criminal charges are to be eventually laid. There is a responsibility on government to ensure that its instrumentalities act in accordance with national and international obligations with regard to UN sanctions programs such as the Oil-For-Food Program. Most especially so when Australia played an active role as a party to the coalition of nations which invaded Iraq and overthrew it’s sovereign government.

The Wheat Export Authority has been found to be ultimately negligent. By direct inference, so is the government which administers it, in my view. It’s simply unacceptable for responsible officers and government ministers to declare plausible deniability, granted to them by carefully crafted cultures of blind-eye turning within the halls of their fiefdoms. If criminal charges are eventually laid by the Parliament against officers of AWB, serious potentials for damaging revelations exist as those accused instruct their legal representatives to embark on journies of discovery which Mr Cole was clearly forbidden to take. This show is not yet over. The fat lady is yet to sing.

If the Howard government is clever, it will not proceed to criminal charges. After all, and I am in total agreement with this stance, AWB undertook to do business in a part of the world where what we may consider to be bribery and corruption are simply a cost of doing business. Would the American wheat exporters have done any differently? I think not. Volcker would certainly not have found so, I’ll warrant. No, the real villains of the piece are the Howard government, either by deliberate design through plausible deniability, or gross incompetence aided by administrative buffoonery and buck-passing. It is unacceptable from a purely social perspective to wage war on a country, while tacitly claiming no knowledge of sanctions-busting over exports to that same country, when your minions know of and have made you aware of the possibilities of such sanctions-busting more than 35 times over a number of years. The validity of  an “I didn’t know” excuse simply doesn’t exist.

The Cole Inquiry report may be found here. Volume Four makes for particularly interesting reading.

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