Sunday, August 19, 2007

Kickback, by Caroline Overington

I must say I’ve never been a fan of Caroline Overington’s columns in The Australian; she always seemed too much of a smart aleck for my liking. So I approached Kickback with some trepidation. On the good side, at least it was written by a newspaper journalist. They are trained to write simple, accessible prose. Happily, Kickback is a really enjoyable read that neatly explains a mindbogglingly complex issue.

The whole AWB (Australian Wheat Board) scandal involves so many people and government bureaucracies that it’s a devil to follow. This is all you basically need to know: two AWB employees were approached by one of Saddam Hussein’s henchmen (he later died in mysterious circumstances) and told they had to pay highly dubious ‘trucking fees’ if they wanted to get Iraq’s trade.

Now we all know that Iraq was under UN sanctions. They could not trade, only through the UN’s Oil For Food program. This program was designed to allow Iraq to use its oil to buy food and medicines, all conducted through the UN. No one was allowed, under UN rules, to pay any kind of cash to Iraq.

The AWB employees essentially agreed to Saddam Hussein’s demands for cash kickbacks, and paid money into a Jordanian trucking company, Alia, that interestingly, owned no trucks. The payments, or kickbacks, increased dramatically overtime. In the end, AWB, in order to facilitate a very lucrative trade with Iraq, paid directly to Saddam Hussein some $290 million dollars. Amazingly, AWB was still doing deals with Saddam Hussein as Australia was planning to invade Iraq.

When all of the corruption of the Oil-For-Food program was exposed, it was Australia’s AWB which was found to be the worst offender. Lots of people in upper echelon diplomatic circles simply found it hard to believe that Australia, an old, established Western democracy, beholden to the rule of law, would be funneling money to Saddam Hussein, the worst kind of dictator. And this really was what was going on: Saddam demanded the money, so AWB gave it to him. $290 million dollars of it.

It was the Canadians who were the first to suspect that something fishy was going on. Their diplomats sent word to our diplomats, who in turn sent numerous cables and faxes to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, or DFAT. The Minister responsible for this Department was and still is Alexander Downer. He penciled on one cable, ‘This worries me’. Nothing was investigated by his department, after numerous warnings.

Caroline Overington seems to be almost at war with Downer. She saves the final sentence of her book to take a swipe at Downer, describing him acting like a ‘loon’ at a function with The Wiggles. She also describes being at the Walkley’s awards night, and just about to pick up an award herself, when Downer’s chief of staff sent her a text message that read ‘laughable’. He’d found out from the Walkley website that Overington was due to win the award. How do you describe such behaviour? What a bunch of turds. And to think Downer is our national representative abroad.

The Howard government set up the Cole inquiry. The inquiry’s terms of reference of course meant the government itself would not be investigated, although some Ministers did appear. Mark Vaile, Minister for Trade, looked a twit during his appearance. Downer took the train and snuck in through the back door, complaining about the $3.00 train fare as being a bit of a rip off. He put in a performance full of Wildean flippancy. And of course the biggest appearance was of Howard himself, who endured minimal questioning.

Was the Australian Government complicit in funneling money to Saddam Hussein? No. Was it incompetent in not checking up after the warnings? Absolutely. What does it say about our attitude to totalitarian dictators? Were we ever really miffed by Saddam Hussein? Not really. Doing an illegal business with him was not something to get to upset about, as a lot of our farmers believed.

How did DFAT defend itself? Perhaps hilariously. I don’t have the book in front of me, but there’s a long quote from an official – all absolute gobbledygook – about how they assess intelligence. The author muses about how much money we spend on gathering intelligence, and then our bureaucrats don’t have the slightest clue, or interest, in actually reading it!!

I think this book is essential reading, and should be read alongside David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s Dark Victory about the Tampa affair. Both books brilliantly show the dark underbelly of the Howard years, and will remain important documents of the Howard era. Both books also brilliantly demonstrate the schizophrenic nature of Australia – Tampa illustrated the irony of people fleeing terrorist regimes being treated appallingly, while Australia prepared to go to war against those very same regimes. Kickback shows how Australia funneled millions of dollars to the murderous Saddam Hussein while preparing to go to war against him.

Perhaps Andrew Wilkie is right, and that Howard takes no real interest in foreign affairs. Howard really is a master of domestic politics.

I wonder how the Howard years will be judged. My personal view is that he really is an extension of the Menzies period. There are just so many, many parallels between the two. Howard stands behind Menzies as the second longest serving PM after all.

Well, I guess we’ll know soon enough about Howard’s legacy. He’ll most likely be out of office by the end of this year. Everyone will be scurrying to figure out what the last 12 years have meant, which is nothing much I guess. What did Howard give us? The GST. WorkChoices. A big spending government that bought big sections of the electorate. Paul Kelly wrote an interesting article about this in The Australian recently. Despite the Libs claiming to be the party of small government, they are actually big taxers, and big on redistributing the money to the poorer sections of the community – like a Labor government.

From Mr Kelly:

Indeed, when it comes to social programs, Howard is a big spender. This story started before the 1996 poll with his historic decision to reverse policy and accept Medicare. This is the biggest philosophical reversal of Howard's career and the most valuable in voting terms.
According to Norton's analysis, in the decade from 1995 Howard's real increase in spending per person was 38 per cent on schools, 40 per cent on health and 28 per cent on welfare. "To many people these figures would look more like the record of a Labor than a Liberal government," Norton says. "This is where the 'big government' label comes from." He argues that Howard's "legacy of entitlement" is enduring.

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