The Cole Commission has finally reported, and I can take some comfort from the fact that my predictions at the start have been borne out almost entirely.* No conclusive proof of government wrongdoing has emerged, no minister has resigned, and the government’s defenders have had no trouble squaring their denunciations of Saddam with the fact that we were financing his rearmament program up to the day the war began.
Only the last of these points really mattered, since it called into question the whole rationale for our participation in the war, and the good faith of those who urged. But now that the war is almost universally recognised as a disaster, this probably no longer matters. Even for those who justified the whole deal on the basis of commercial self-interest, it should be clear by now that we have lost any positive standing we had in the world wheat market and that the US will be able to lock us out of many markets we might otherwise have competed in with success.
For those who want more, though, occasional commenter Stepehn Bartos has produced a book called “Against the Grain – The AWB Scandal and why it happened”. It is published by UNSW Press in their briefings series, can be ordered online at www.unireps.com.au. He says
The book goes beyond the Cole Inquiry concerns of who did what when, and instead looks at the underlying causes of the scandal including inadequate due diligence at the time of AWB privatisation in 1999, poor design of regulatory supervision, and most importantly, the fact that Ministers and AWB officials were all part of the same small, closed circle and not inclined to ask questions even when information alerting the government to the possibility of the kickbacks started to come out.
It sounds like a substantial effort, given the short time, but of course many of the fundamental issues have been familiar from previous episode.
*The only point of disagreement is that Cole and I apparently differ on epistemological questions. In my view, if you are told ‘P is true’, P is in fact true and you have no good reason to disbelieve P, then you should be presumed to believe P and therefore to know P. Cole, perhaps more conventionally thinks that if you choose (or claim to choose) not to believe P, then you can’t know P. Thus, even though the government was told on many occasions that AWB was bribing Saddam, knew that Saddam was exacting bribes on a large scale, and had encouraged AWB to do ‘whatever it takes’ to sell wheat, by choosing not to believe the facts placed before, it avoided guilty knowledge.