The Cole Commission’s report into the Australian Wheat Board’s payment of bribes to Saddam Hussein was released yesterday. The AWB took a deserved beating and criminal action was recommended for a number of executives, but the Commonwealth government came out of it in pretty good shape. In fact, they have quickly moved onto the front foot, demanding that the opposition apologise for suggesting any wrongdoing on the part of the government.

The AWB affair, and the government’s handling of it, strikes me as the latest illustration of the culture of deniability that the Howard government has used to good effect throughout its existence. John Quiggin talked about the state of the government’s “knowledge” in relation to the AWB scandal back in April of this year:

As anyone familiar with Australian politics could have predicted it rapidly became apparent that the government knew all about the payoffs, except in the special sense of “know” that is considered relevant in such matters. The Canadians who were offered the same deal and refused, complained to the Australian government, but AWB denied it, and the government was careful not to press them.

It seems that the government has developed a cultural norm that potentially damaging information should be kept at a distance, and in particular should not make its way to Ministers. The denial of knowledge is then used to avoid accountability. In some cases, a few heads in the public service might roll, but the Ministers are protected.

It is interesting how efficient and effective this approach has turned out to be. I would imagine there are no explicit directives about this sort of thing – that would defeat the purpose. But when something comes up that looks like a political hot potato which might be difficult to deal with, it seems like our current leaders are able to shrug and say “we weren’t told about it”. It got them through Children Overboard, played a part in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, and now it has emerged that a similar pattern applies with the AWB.

The thing is, I don’t understand how not being told, or not having sufficient follow-up, about potentially important issues can serve as an excuse. I would have thought the idea is that sensitive information needs to make its way to those who are in charge, on the off chance that it is important. A manager should know as much as possible about what is going on in the area they manage, whether it’s in a university, a corporation, or a government department. And they should be responsible for developing an appropriate organisational culture that allows for the appropriate transmission of information. To allow one’s department to develop a culture of ignorance is itself negligent.

While I’m not a fan of our current government, I should acknowledge that I am not convinced that those on the other side of the political fence would show more integrity if put in the same role. At the same time, I can’t imagine that they would be this good at it. The thing that strikes me most about John Howard and his government is that they are very good at managing political risk.

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