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February 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Just Killing Time With Wheat For Weapons

February 12, 2006

by Glenn Milne - Sunday Mail (Brisbane)

It was the embattled Simon Crean who had the most incisive line of the week on the AWB scandal.

"If this was the United States and it was the AWB equivalent over there, George W Bush would have been forced from office," the former Labor leader told a colleague.

He was making two points. The first was that because the US has suffered more than 2000 casualties in Iraq, any scandal involving quasi-government kickbacks to Saddam Hussein that were subsequently used to fund his military would be politically deadly for any president, let alone George W, whose "weapons of mass destruction" justification for going to war in the first place has also been proven to be a total furphy.

In making his first point, however, Crean was also making a second aimed at his Labor colleagues.

It's precisely because no Australian soldiers have been killed in Iraq that so far the AWB issue is not resonating with voters here.

"Wheat for Weapons" which is what Kim Beazley and Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd have dubbed the scandal is a politically potent label.

But it becomes politically lethal only if one of our own is killed as a result of the AWB's sanctions-busting corruption.

That hasn't happened. So Labor is left with a large-scale moral and political outrage but not one big enough to have gripped the public imagination.

The AWB is simply too far removed from most people's lives for them to get their head around the intricate and often confusing detail of the Cole inquiry.

In this it has parallels with the so-called Gerard affair of last year that singed Federal Treasurer Peter Costello.

Costello became embroiled in claims he had appointed Rob Gerard an Adelaide businessman and big Liberal donor to the Reserve Bank board knowing he stood accused of tax evasion. Both denied the claims.

Labor leaped on the Gerard allegations hoping it would cripple Costello as a future Liberal leadership candidate. It didn't.

Like the AWB, most people would not know the functions carried out by the bank, let alone its board.

And that's despite the fact it sets the most sensitive economic indicator in people's lives interest rates.

No one certainly knew who Rob Gerard was, or particularly cared. It was insider stuff.

There's no doubt the evidence before the Cole inquiry has already convinced most observers the AWB was corrupt in its practices in Iraq and that it deliberately circumvented UN sanctions.

But the responses to that conclusion will vary. Some will simply shrug their shoulders and say it, while wrong, was simply the price of doing business in that part of the world.

The AWB's own constituency wheat farmers is likely to go further, blaming Labor for imposing unrealistically high standards on the AWB and destroying its international reputation, thereby denying farmers access to vital markets.

Others will be outraged. But unfortunately for Labor, not enough.

The Opposition's only hope politically is for the direct implication of John Howard or one of his ministers in the scandal.

So far Howard, Deputy PM Mark Vaile, Alexander Downer and Warren Truss have all been brushed by the Cole inquiry. But there has been no knockout punch.

Some senior Labor figures privately admit that such a blow now appears unlikely.

Given that, the Opposition now has to decide when it stops devoting Question Time exclusively to the AWB and gets back to other subjects more relevant to voters' lives.

My bet is that will happen sooner, rather than later.



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