With the appearances of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile before the Cole inquiry this week, the core issues surrounding government policy over AWB are gradually coming to the surface. Until now, parliamentary and media questions put to ministers about the AWB affair have focussed on the personal responsibility of ministers and officials. Did they know about the kickbacks and, if so, when?
The opposition has been desperate to claim a ministerial scalp by discovering a smoking gun.
On the government side, ministers have assumed that if they can plausibly deny personal knowledge and avoid any charge of deliberate dishonesty, they will be safely off the hook. Confident that the paper trail contains no personally incriminating evidence, ministers have appeared invulnerable.
But what about the failure of overall government policy, regardless of who carried it out?
In our system of government, the conventions of ministerial responsibility are concerned much more with collective or corporate responsibility than with personal responsibility.
Ministers, as the elected politicians placed in charge of large government departments, are obliged to answer for the actions of their departments as a whole, not just for their personal actions. This obligation requires them to provide information about departmental decisions, to explain and justify government policy in their area and, where mistakes occur, to make sure adequate remedies are imposed. Only in exceptional cases where they are found to have been personally culpable for an important impropriety, such as deliberately misleading parliament, does the question of resignation properly arise.
For the most part, the day-to-day exercise of ministerial responsibility involves ministers explaining decisions in their portfolios and taking remedial action.
In the AWB affair, the fundamental question, largely ignored, is: what was government policy towards the UN oil-for-food program?
Two possibilities suggest themselves. The first is that the Australian Government, as a good international citizen, sceptical of Saddam Hussein's intentions, wished to maintain the integrity of the UN program. Australian companies were to be prevented from breaching the program's provisions.
In this case, government policy failed spectacularly. Government officials failed to pursue the many hints about AWB's involvement in kickbacks. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the intelligence agencies did not connect the dots.
We would expect ministers to admit that government policy towards the UN oil-for-food program had failed, to explain why this policy had gone wrong, to reprimand those officials found to have been at fault and to remedy bureaucratic systems for the future. However, no minister has so far taken this line.
The second - and likelier possibility - is therefore that government policy was to encourage AWB sales of wheat to Iraq and to overlook any hints of wrongdoing by AWB while going through the motions of checking compliance with UN requirements. If AWB were caught in any breach, government records would show that the UN's procedures had been followed and that there was no written evidence of any government knowledge of the breach.
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