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This has not been a great week for some of George Bush’s stoutest friends.
In Britain the first week of campaigning in the Municipal elections due throughout England (not Scotland or Wales) in the second week of May, show initial signs of a debacle which may well bring on the final chapter of the Tony Blair Story, rather earlier than its eponymous hero might like.
“New Labour” is running scared faced with a dearth of campaign workers, party funds and a wish amongst many voters on the left to punish each and every Labour candidate for the sins of Blair.
Likewise in Italy, the decline and fall of Berlusconi, a companion.of both Blair and Bush, has so far passed without public comment from either man though Blair, a regular visitor at Berlusconi’s Sardinian palazzo, will no doubt regret the fall of his neo-fascist, neo-con, friend and the pleasures of his great house on the sunny Costa ‘Smeralda.
Another who expressed great admiration for Berlusconi on their one meeting last year in Rome, was the Australian P.M. Howard, who found Berlusconi a real soul-mate, and who invited him to pay a visit to Australia. It now seems unlikely to ever take place!
Unfortunately, Howard must have had little time to contemplate the fate of his Italian friend, as this has been a very long and difficulty week for him, his Foreign Minister Downer, whose faint English accent, springs from his blue-blood background (having had a conservative politician-father who though Australian, was more English than the English, and spent his retirement in Britain, where Downer was educated). The other Minister was Mark Vaile, the leader of the rural-based, but slowing expiring National Party, the coalition partner of Howard’s misnamed Liberal Party. The National Party is not really national, but concentrated on a few states, and then in rural areas only.
The cause of the problems, sprang from the time of the UN Sanctions on Iraq, under Saddam.
The Howard Government was a participant in the sanctions, but rightfully fearful of losing the very substantial contract held by the the Australian Wheat Board Ltd., to the US wheat interests, managed to know nothing of the fact that the AWB was bribing Saddam with over $300 million in kickbacks.Very wise move at the time!
All this would have been fine, but the US invasion of Iraq, which Howard supported warmly, also brought to light the whole sorry story of the huge amount paid on to Saddam, as part of the deal.
The US wheat interests, were anxious to capitalise on their discovery. A US government enquiry, last year chaired by Paul Volker, showed the extent of the corruption.
The Australian Government seems to have been able to do nothing to stop the US enquiry, and must have regretted the success of the US invasion, which in public Howard had so enthusiastically supported.
It is a story of lies, deception, corruption, and hubris, and memory-loss, worthy of one of the ancient Greek dramatists. Forced to hold an enquiry in Australia, at the insistence of the US Government, the Australian Government and it leaders had two alternatives.
Admit the whole story, or pretend that they really knew nothing about the matter, or if they did they had forgotten everything.
Minister Vaile owned up to 22 such lapses. The Foreign Minister Downer confessed that although there had been many cables from his own representatives abroad about the matter, he couldn’t remember reading any such memos or cables at all. “I seldom read cables, unless I’m on a plane and have nothing else to read,” he told the rather startled enquiry.
The general picture is of an Australian Government displaying amazing incompetence and folly, which would earn it instant dismissal if carried out in any normal enterprise.
It is of course better on some occasions to be thought incompetent, than to be guilty of telling lies or allowing criminal acts to go on unpunished, especially if you are the Government of the day.
Polls show that Australians just think the P.M. and his ministers are simply lying on an epic scale. The Melbourne Herald Sun showed 91% of respondens felt the government was lying., and the media is full of scornful stories and cartoons.
Howard, whose support for Bush earned him the sobriquet of “arse-licker” from a former Labour Leader, must hate every moment of the affair. His appearance today in Sydney before Commission Cole, must have been a very galling experience, and walking though demonstators on the sidewalk outside, he must have wished was in Berlusconi’s ‘Palazzo in Sardinia.’
Many will find it marvellously fitting that a crisis having it’s origins in Iraq, has wound around the Howard Government like a great python. It may, of course end with Australia losing the Iraq wheat market to the US, and Australian farmers are restive and critical of the US.!
The stories of US corporate crime in Iraq is well know now in Australia.
Unlike Berlusconi, Howard and Co. will lie their way out of this debacle, but it does show the way the consequences of Iraq are slowly undermining the diminishing little band of George Bush true believers.
BRIAN McKINLAY, is the author of a number of books on Australian history and politics, and writes and broadcasts on many topics. He lives in Melbourne. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org