Whatever it takes

3 Mar 2006

Does a strong economy mean the government can get away with almost anything, asks Geoffrey Barker

IT WAS a startling admission. “The most important external influence on the Howard government”, the senior Liberal said without a trace of irony, “has been Graham Richardson”.

Certainly, as Judith Brett has observed, the Liberals have always had a capacity to fight more ruthlessly than Labor and to get away with it. But it was strange to hear a senior Liberal acknowledge the government’s debt to the former NSW Labor senator whose attitude to politics provided the title of his memoir: Whatever It Takes.

Yet the ongoing saga of the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) scandal has revealed the government in full-blown whatever-it-takes mode - as did the ‘children overboard’ affair, the decision to fight in Iraq, the appalling treatment of asylum-seekers and Australian citizens Christina Rau and Vivian Solon, and other notable controversies during the ten years of Coalition government.

The AWB scandal has involved systematic efforts by the government to do whatever it takes to deny any early knowledge of, and responsibility for stopping, the AWB’s role in the corrupt payment of $300 million in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime under the oil-for-food program.

It has shown, to quote Judith Brett again, “the ruthlessness with which Howard fights, and the focused opportunism with which he will attempt to turn whatever fate throws him to his advantage, without much concern for the long-term cost”.

Before looking in detail at the AWB scandal, it helps to be clear about the nature of whatever-it-takes politics as practiced by Howard and his ministers. It is politics untroubled by any notions of government accountability or ministerial responsibility. It is not bound by consistency or coherency requirements; it is simply brazen when confronted by evidence that challenges its core assertions.

As it has played out in parliament over recent days the essential feature of the whatever-it-takes politics of the AWB scandal is that anything goes. Any ministerial statement, any evasion, is fine so long as it fills the bill for the current news cycle. It can always be changed later - and any move by the Opposition to censure the government is easily defeated.

Whatever-it-takes politics assumes that an Australian government can get away with almost anything so long as the economy is strong enough to keep most punters happy. Under Opposition pressure over the AWB scandal John Howard stressed the level of wage increases under the Coalition government. Peter Costello managed to put an extraordinarily positive gloss on patchy economic statistics. (They also benefited from the diversion created by Labor’s bloodletting over federal parliamentary preselections in Victoria).

The government’s most consistent response to questions about the AWB scandal is that it has set up the Cole inquiry and that Cole will get to the truth of the matter. While the government deserves credit for setting up the inquiry, it is not unduly cynical to see it as an attempt to limit parliamentary scrutiny of the scandal and to delay any potentially embarrassing findings until public interest or attention has wandered elsewhere.

It remains to be seen whether Cole will require an extension of his 31 March deadline to complete his investigation and report. So far Cole has found himself confronting a pandemic of collective amnesia afflicting senior AWB witnesses. Former chief executive Andrew Lindberg, who resigned on 9 February, said he “could not recall” 179 times on one morning’s evidence before the inquiry. Former AWB chairman Trevor Flugge, a former National Party election candidate paid $1 million as a government-appointed advisor in Iraq, was similarly uninformative due to memory failure. Cole’s search for truth has received so little help from AWB that the inquiry is now threatening to execute search warrants at AWB headquarters to access missing documents.

But diplomatic cables released by Cole appear to flatly contradict repeated claims by Prime Minister John Howard, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer and Trade Minister Mark Vaille that their first knowledge of the kickbacks scandal was “in the context of” the Volker inquiry which reported to the United Nations in October 2005. The cables, going back to January 2000, reveal that Downer, his department secretary, Ashton Calvert, and other senior officials received detailed accounts of the alleged scam from Australian diplomats.

Operating on the whatever-it-takes principle, Downer shifted ground to the extent of acknowledging that he “would have” read the cables, but said he did not believe the claims were true - although his department pressed the AWB to provide additional details of wheat contracts with the Iraqis to the United Nations. Vaille reluctantly acknowledged that he expected staff at the time “would have brought the general contents of the cable to my attention”. So did Howard, Downer and Vaille mislead parliament when they said they only learned about the scam “in the context of” the Volker inquiry? Downer and Vaille reject that suggestion as outrageous, Downer saying Labor is making blustering empty allegations, and Vaille accusing the Labor Party of trying to “muddy the waters”. Whatever it takes.

Meanwhile John Howard, defending the appointment of the forgetful Mr Flugge, went off at an extraordinary tangent to deflect attention from his ministers. He mounted a spirited defence of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade declaring it was unfair to say that after six years the department “should have made further inquiries”. But nobody had suggested anything of the sort. In fact the DFAT cables reveal astute diplomats giving detailed, firm and timely warnings to their department and to their ministers. Howard’s curious gambit has to be seen as a move to shift the blame to officials, to anticipate the obvious question of why the government simply dropped the ball on a scandal they could at least have limited.

It remains to be seen whether this whatever-it-takes approach will work. But, depending on what Cole eventually reports, the chances are that the affluent Australian majority will soon lose interest the scandal that has diminished Australia’s international reputation and possibly cost Australian wheat growers access to a major Middle East market. With the looming Commonwealth Games, and a three-week parliamentary recess, the issue will probably slide into the background, as have other contentious government actions, while Australians wallow in the nationalistic excesses of sporting competition.

Howard is already describing attempts to call the government to account as futility. He noted that after asking 110 questions Labor had achieved nothing. That is only partly true. Opposition questions have shown the lengths to which ministers will go to avoid responsibility for their inattention to clear red-light warnings. They have revealed the full measure of the Howard government’s whatever-it-takes approach to politics.

The costs are hard to assess. In economic terms the main losers may be Australian wheat growers who, despite Vaille’s dash to Baghdad, have no guarantee that their wheat will be purchased in future. Another loser is the parliamentary system. Systematic stonewalling in reply to 110 parliamentary questions does not equal genuine accountability or responsibility. But it does raise the level of public cynicism about the integrity of national political processes. It is another depressing sign of the slow degeneration of Australian democracy. •

Geoffrey Barker is a senior foreign affairs and defence policy columnist for the Australian Financial Review and author of Sexing It Up: Iraq, Intelligence and Australia, published in APO’s Briefings series by UNSW Press.

Photo: Andrew Jeffrey

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