During the sanctions imposed on Iraq the United Nations agreed to allow the Iraqis to sell oil for US dollars to buy food in international markets. The intention was to enable the food purchases but to limit the possibilities for Saddam from aggrandising himself or from purchasing weapons with the dollars. But Saddam controlled access to the Iraqi market and those trying to sell food there and had to deal with him.
So the Australian Wheat Board apparently paid the regime almost $300 million in bribes to secure access. Saddam’s regime got kickbacks (he effectively taxed the trade), the people of Iraq got the wheat which helped prevent them from starving, the AWB secured a valuable Middle East sales contract and Australia’s left and the press got the chance to concoct conspiracy theories about how the Federal Government knew about the trade all along and didn’t try to stop it. Why am I not excited about the terrible AWB scandal?
From the perspective of the AWB were not the kickbacks just the cost of doing business with a corrupt regime? This is not just cynical realpolitik. Would the people of Iraq been better off had the AWB wheat sales not been made? I guess US wheat vendors might have been better-off and sales might even have been made without kickbacks or with lower kickbacks. As for the left and the media – they would have found some other issue to kick the government over but they might have had to think a bit harder which would have definitely made them worse-off.
The kickbacks were wrong but I cannot get too angry about the AWB’s actions. Nor can I get overly concerned with the Cole Inquiry. I agree with Greg Sheridan – The government won’t lose a vote on the basis of this and Alexander Downer’s performance showed class. John Howard subsequently performed well also – indeed very well. The left in Australia are digging desparately for dirt but it is hard going because, ignoring the questionable behaviour of the AWB, the Government’s story has stuck:
After three months of hearings and despite numerous allegations and warning bells, no evidence has emerged that he (i.e. John Howard) or other ministers were told definitively that AWB was paying kickbacks. The Government may have been naive or indulging in wishful thinking in wanting the allegations to go away. It may have been culpably negligent in not pursuing its inquiries more forcefully. But its denials that it knew conclusively that the bribery was taking place have held.