Sunday, April 16, 2006

The ignorance of Mr Howard

The Guardian's editorial has a bit of a go at The Rodent, his government and their "grubby" behaviour in relation to the AWB scandal.

The ignorance of Mr Howard
Saturday April 15, 2006


There was no more steadfast ally of George Bush and Tony Blair in the invasion of Iraq than John Howard, the prime minister of Australia. Mr Blair, in particular, was full of praise for his "strength and leadership" and his willingness to "get stuck in". Just a month before the war began, the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, informed Mr Howard that Britain was "in exactly the same position as the Australian government in respect to Iraq".

Not quite, we hope. Mr Howard has now become the first Australian prime minister in 23 years to be called to account before a judicial commission after it emerged that a company exporting wheat to Iraq under the UN's oil-for-food programme had been paying huge kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime right up to the start of the invasion. It is by no means inconceivable that some of this money paid for weapons that were then used to fight Australian troops.

The company, AWB (formerly known as the Australian Wheat Board), has exclusive marketing rights for bulk wheat exports from Australia. It was Iraq's largest single supplier under the oil-for-food programme and also, it now emerges, Saddam's largest supplier of bribes - to the tune of £125m.

Although a series of 21 diplomatic cables dating back almost three years before the war had warned the Australian government that AWB was suspected of paying bribes, Mr Howard denies that he received or read any of them. Even though he made a speech just a week before the war accusing Saddam Hussein of cynically exploiting the oil-for-food programme in order to buy weapons, it apparently never occurred to him that AWB might be involved. "I always believed the best of that company," he told the judicial commission. Mr Howard's foreign minister and his trade minister have also succumbed to ignorance and/or amnesia as far as the warning cables are concerned. Foreign minister Alexander Downer told the commission that had "no specific recollection" of the crucial messages, and that he gets so many cables he tends not to read them all unless "I'm stuck on a plane and I've run out of reading material".

Not surprisingly, this is stretching the tolerance of voters and has caused a sharp dip for Mr Howard in the opinion polls. It may not bring down his government, but it does make his principled stand against Saddam's dictatorship look distinctly grubby and will do little for the morale of Australian troops still risking their lives in Iraq.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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