hunted through the Cole Inquiry transcripts seeking to determine “… how many times the memories of our government ministers, officials and AWB executives have lapsed … with phrases like: ‘I can’t recall’, ‘not to my knowledge’, ‘I don’t know’, ‘I’m not sure’, ‘I’m not certain’, and ‘not that I’m aware of.’”

At the ministerial level Foreign Minister Downer topped the class with 62 times, Mark Vaile was second with 44 times and Prime Minister John Howard had a preliminary count of two times, subject to a more comprehensive examination of the transcript. However, these numbers, although alarming, are modest when set against AWB Managing Director Andrew Lindberg’s tally of 733 times, other AWB executives with over 200 times and yet others with dozens to their credit — or discredit. Crikey summarises the ministerial and AWB executive saga of fancy footwork as amounting to “…1757 expressions of ignorance, denial, obfuscation, memory lapse, vagueness and incompetence we can find by a range of people in influential positions in Australian Government and business.”

Frightening isn’t it?

I am not normally one who is given to pessimism or to strident assertions of concern, bordering on the apocalyptic, about matters and principles I once took for granted. For all that, however, I think I have now confronted something that truly does stun me and incite in me levels of concern and even contempt that I have only very rarely experienced. I refer of course to the behaviour of Messrs. Vaile and Downer — the gormless and the giggler — before the Cole Inquiry, along with the rest of that sorry saga. Put briefly, I think they have lied and, whether they lied or not, they have revealed themselves to be utterly incompetent. More importantly, they have cocked a snook at institutions and principles that have been fundamental to the Westminster system long before bungling second-raters like this lot besmirched the system. I have heard it suggested that they are cunning and devious. I disagree. I think they are cumbersome rather than cunning; transparent rather than devious. Large swathes of the voting public would right now surely be regarding them as bumbling, dishonest, incompetent fools.

I did not include John Howard

I did not include Prime Minister John Howard in that comment not because I consider that he told “the whole truth and nothing but…” before the Inquiry but only because he was a step or two more remote from the action than Downer and Vaile. Downer and Vaile are in closely allied portfolios embracing trade and foreign affairs. Compared to these and other portfolios the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is a massive undertaking which, by virtue of its central role, has huge flows of papers which would include much sensitive and highly classified material. A lot of that paper would come “for information” from security agencies, Foreign Affairs and Trade and other agencies. I could understand the Prime Minister not physically seeing a piece of paper on the kick-backs issue but I would be extremely surprised if he wasn’t told about it, the more so given its implications for the US/Australia relationship and the monumental irony of paying kick-backs to a regime our troops were fighting or about to be fighting. Indeed, I would be confident that all the key players – at both ministerial and bureaucratic levels – would have been careful to tell those close to them in hierarchical terms what was going on, what they did or didn’t do and who they had told or not told because that is the best way to protect each others’ backsides. One in, all in.

But don’t take my word for this appalling piece of ministerial theatre. This is what reports on what some of the nation’s leading journalists said about the performance of Minister Vaile. Dennis Shanahan in The Australian used words like “incompetent” and “buckpassing”; Neil Chenoweth in the AFR reported that “The Trade Minister didn’t have a clue”; Michelle Grattan in The Age said Vaile was “…at best, totally naïve and, at worst, frighteningly incompetent.”; Matt Price in The Australian said “Vaile floundered”; and Peter Hartcher in the Sydney Morning Herald referred to “…a picture of incurious and incompetent ministerial oversight.”

From all accounts Downer was only marginally better than Vaile. Peter Hartcher had this to say about Downer in the Sydney Morning Herald: “He was relaxed where he should have been alarmed, complacent when he should have been vigilant, driving his portfolio like Mr. Magoo, jauntily and haphazardly, giggling blithely as he traversed impossible risks, where he should have been soberly navigating the institutions of government across dangerous territory.”

It is against this background that one is moved to ask if anyone anywhere in this farce has accepted any responsibility for what has been a saga of incompetence and dishonesty of monumental proportions. Of course they haven’t; history is repeating itself. The once sacred notion of ministerial responsibility has seemingly long since fled the minds of the Howard ministry. The AWB issue has indisputably been a massive cock-up but no-one anywhere is accepting any responsibility. So it just happened? Of course it didn’t just happen and if Mr. Cole is as tough and incisive as he is said to be then some institutions and quite a few individuals will emerge from this matter with greatly diminished reputations and possibly worse than that in some cases.

Indolent, incompetent

In my view it would be quite unacceptable for government to brush this matter aside as one of no great consequence but, subject to Cole’s report, I have no doubt that is what they will seek to do. It is part of their group breeding to duck and weave, to tell big fibs and little fibs, to wait things out until public dismay and disgust turns to another issue. The only way this saga can be turned into a positive is if Cole gives the relevant ministers, departments and bureaucrats such a severe lashing that the government will be compelled to take some action. For example, at the very least, Vaile and Downer should certainly be sacked from the ministry if they are found by Cole to be as indolent, incompetent, devious and/or otherwise deficient as they revealed themselves to be before the Inquiry. I must admit, however, that I am only very cautiously optimistic that anything akin to true justice will be exacted within government, whatever Cole says. Such a result would not be incompatible with precedent over the past few years.

To me at least, this episode of governmental grubbiness and backside protection is unique, at least to this stage, in that it seems to be a broad-based conspiracy involving all parties in a pact of silence and obfuscation. Or is it and, if it is, will it remain so? After all, the witnesses so far examined have been AWB personnel and the Prime Minister and the duo of dills, Vaile and Downer. It will be most interesting to observe what transpires when the bureaucrats make their appearances. One can only hope that someone — or more — from that level will reveal a productive chink in the wall of silence.

Over the past few years there has been regular market research undertaken by independent agencies, the media and indeed by the political parties themselves on a range of political issues, including the standing of the respective parties at both state and federal level. Being an avid reader of books, newspapers and magazines one cannot help noting the recurrent research that shows the disregard that the voting public has for politicians as a species. As a group, they simply never get the numbers for honesty, openness, dependability, decency and other such respected human characteristics. I have no doubt that the Cole Inquiry, in its conduct and in its findings, will compound that public concern and contempt.

I think the decline in political morality in this country, especially at the federal level, is a matter of very great concern. The politicians can indeed be viewed with distaste for this unsatisfactory state of affairs. But there is one other critical factor in this equation. That is we the people. We allowed it to happen. We allowed it to happen by turning away, by our disinterest, by our fear of contamination if we got too close, by leaving it to someone else. So, what do we do to “keep the bastards honest”? Do we go to voluntary voting which is what most of the world has? Or do we just continue to treat it as bad theatre and get on with our lives?

Nick Evers’ brilliant analysis was written Sunday, April 16, then, lost in translation.