An interesting little court-room drama is unfolding in Australia this week.
Before they started helping Bush & Co invade Iraq, John Howard's government was helping the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) violate UN sactions on Iraq. When the scandal first broke, Howard was forced to set up yet another anodyne government inquiry to "investigate the claims". But he made sure the inquiry would not have the power to investigate the government's role in the violations, only the AWB's. But during questioning yesterday it became clear that the government will be dragged into the scandal one way or another:
Under the intense, forensic questioning of counsel assisting, John Agius, SC, Rogers's memory continually failed him. But there was one fact Rogers could recall and he mentioned it repeatedly: the first dubious Iraqi contracts containing the inflated inland transport fees, now exposed as kickbacks, were approved by Foreign Affairs officials in Canberra.But there is another layer to this scandal. At the time when sanctions were being violated, the AWB was state-owned. The sanctions-busting hypocrisy helped drive up the share price for the government's later privatisation!
Rogers recalled the manager, Mark Emons, and other AWB people "went to Canberra to talk to DFAT, and that's about the only thing I can ever remember - I can remember", Rogers said.
On the third time around, Agius said: "You keep coming back to that, but I don't think I have asked you a single question about the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade?"
" No", said Rogers, "but I think it was relevant because there was some discussion about these items and that's all I remember."
The problem for the Howard Government is that these illicit payments began before the Australian Wheat Board was corporatised. And AWB, even after it was listed on the stock exchange, continued to see the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as its ally in shoring up the claims that it was complying with UN sanctions.
But the evidence of AWB's behaviour raises serious questions for the Government. If officials have any knowledge that AWB was circumventing the UN sanctions, it is not just politically embarrassing. It means the Government was complicit in allowing AWB to rip money off the UN's Iraq escrow account, which was intended to purchase food and medicine for malnourished Iraqis.
UPDATE: More here.