Issues in Australian Foreign Policy: January to June 2006

By Leaver, Richard; Sach, Robyn | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Issues in Australian Foreign Policy: January to June 2006


Leaver, Richard, Sach, Robyn, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Once upon a time there was a war in the Middle East. UN sanctions sought to deny militarily useful goods to Iraq, one of the combatants. Meanwhile, in the western world, a large company was found to be in breach of UN policy, and its executives were called to account. But when put in the dock, the first defence of the CEO of this company was that he was employed by the overseas spy agency of the very same government that now sought to try him.

This is no black comedy. It is our four-sentence summary of the Matrix Churchill trial that unfolded in the UK in the immediate aftermath of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The trial provided part of the backdrop to the rise and rise of Australian expatriate barrister Geoffrey Robertson, who successfully defended the CEO of Matrix Churchill and then wrote about the issue with his customary perspicacity. (1) As luck would have it, Robertson was in and around Australia during the period under review, processing some old and new controversies through his famous Hypotheticals mill. No-one, it seems, felt inclined to ask him about broad parallels between Matrix Churchill and the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) case that was running full steam at the time.

The probabilities behind this particular hypothetical were, and still are, very considerable--as one would expect of a firm whose main customers in recent years have been Indonesia, China and Iraq, all places at the very top of Australian priorities for human intelligence. This eminently plausible hypothetical would, if true, account for some of the greater oddities of the AWB case--not just the robust defence of AWB from official quarters during years of complaints, but the counter-intuitive tendency for the ferocity of the defence to increase as complaints rose up the political food chain. Intelligence is, after all, the most valued of all elite goods in the international realm, and its real value is most appreciated (and therefore most stoutly defended) at the top end of bureaucracies and governments.

This scenario would also help to explain why the AWB case, towards the end of the review period, seemed to be headed towards the not credible judgement of being "a crime without criminals". Perhaps charges will yet be laid, but the discussions between Commissioner Cole and the Federal Police that took place in June gave no indication of producing plausible villains. Under the hypothetical scenario, part of the art of the juggling the AWB contradictions would be to keep as much of the matter as possible out of the courts--the irrevocable mistake, clearly, in the Major government's case management of Matrix Churchill.

Meanwhile, intelligence of a different type passed through Terrence Cole's dock, which opened for business in January. More than ably assisted by John Agius SC, who rather unnervingly defined his task as "drilling down", the Inquiry commenced with evidence from AWB senior officials and wound down four months later with presentations from Mark Vaile, Alexander Downer and John Howard himself. Over this period, and in spite of the apparent early onset of senile dementia that afflicted many witnesses, the facts of the matter began to look reasonably clear. (2) Beginning amidst the near-war experience of Operation Desert Fox in 1998, AWB recommenced wheat sales to Iraq under the UN Oil For Food programme. It proved relatively easy for what was still a government instrumentality at that time to corner this market, since memories of the last war and fears of a future one meant that US wheat was simply not acceptable to Saddam Hussein. Hence the only feasible competition might come from the Canadians. But when the Canadians dipped their toe in the Iraq market in early 2000, they immediately detected that AWB contracts were being over-charged for the inland transport of imported wheat.

What the Canadians had rather casually turned up was an arrangement put in place the previous year at the insistence of Iraqi authorities that would ultimately see AWB deliver nearly A$300 million in hard currency kickbacks from the UN escrow account to Saddam's government.

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