CORRUPTION is a lot like cancer. It is best caught early, otherwise the cure involves increasingly radical intervention, and exponentially poor prognosis for a return to health as one knew it.

That’s the bottom line of the final report of Terence Cole, QC, on the AWB scandal that delivered $290 million in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein in breach of UN sanctions. You don’t have to quote selectively, Mr Downer, to hit that bottom.

Cole plainly attributes the AWB fiasco to a lack of openness and frankness in relevant dealings, and a closed culture of superiority and impregnability, of dominance and self-importance, lacking an ethical base, in which no one asked what was the right thing to do.

Cole employs those relatively dramatic words specifically to describe the corporate governance culture of AWB. By contrast, he selects much flatter, more passive language in his assessment of the role of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, AusAID, the Office of National Assessments, the Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Trade, and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

It was apparently prudent for him to restrain himself in this way, given the tight wording of his terms of reference (directing him to examine the behaviour of AWB and other Australian companies), and the partisan parliamentary debate surrounding what they may or may not have allowed him to investigate. Roaming too far from the AWB target would have exposed Cole, professionally and personally, and likely have caught him in the credibility crossfire. In turn, this would have discredited his report, the importance of which cannot be underestimated, given the magnitude and grubbiness of this affair and its implications for governance at home and Australia’s reputation abroad.

Now that Cole has handed over his carefully crafted five volumes, it is the task of others to push the probity probe into the murky, mucky places he could not go. That should not be limited to the taskforce and others assigned with pursuing criminal prosecution of key AWB executives, according to Cole’s recommendation. Only pinched justice will be done if Trevor Flugge and fellow travellers end up as isolated scalps nailed to a wall (and what are we left with if they don’t?). One AWB figure’s reported promise to call Alexander Downer as a witness at his trial, and get his own QC to rip him to shreds, certainly hints at flashy fisticuffs to come. But what the Australian public really needs now is a bit less hired-gun cowboy and more strategic application of Cole’s observations about cultures of governance.

Reading between classic Cole lines

Start with the culture of DFAT, the central Australian Government agency in this oil-for-food debacle. The Age’s Michelle Grattan has started that ball bouncing, reading between classic Cole lines, such as “the evidence does not support an inference of actual knowledge on the part of DFAT”, DFAT “did not consider that its role encompassed investigating alleged breaches of the sanctions”, and DFAT was not guilty of turning a blind eye. Grattan rightly indicates that squeezed shut and indiscriminately open are not the only available positions for eyeballs or public servants, and that culpability might be calibrated accordingly. Inquiry should go further along Grattan’s lines and pierce the bureaucratic veil more deeply. Why didn’t DFAT have any systems or procedures in relation to how its staff should proceed in relation to the breach of sanctions? Why was no specific officer given responsibility for responding to or investigating such matters? What were the chains of command — and their weakest links — in relation to any relevant decisions, including about departmental process?

Insert that probe a bit further and harder. Exactly what were DFAT’s relevant practices regarding liaison (or lack of it) with Australian intelligence organisations? And with relevant advisers in the offices of relevant ministers? Exactly who in all those offices was making the decisions about who saw and signed off on relevant pieces of the oil-for-food info-puzzle? According to exactly what criteria? Who or what was setting the tone and pace of this government business? How frank, and how fearless, can or should the mandarins and minions of Canberra be in their dealings with today’s political masters?

Recalling that most suggestive and niggling of Coles’ offerings, the most meaningful question becomes whether or not there was anyone whispering, or wondering, what was the right thing to do. Without a critical mass of individuals daring to do that, because they adhere to a more solid notion of public administration in which service to the public means something larger than service to the incumbent government, and its mates and favourites, Australia’s up a foetid creek without a paddle. I know there are officers in DFAT and beyond who take very seriously that wider notion of public service and national interest. I also know Canberra is stacked with their doppelgangers, men and women who ruthlessly prioritise promotion, posting and patronage, with eyes increasingly fixed on their optimal superannuation retirement moment. I further know there’s a graded spectrum in the blurrier middle, and that understandably, if not quite admirably, few are prepared to do an Andrew Wilkie.

What I don’t know is how these differing dispositions may have clashed or conversed in the water-cooler moments of this latest Howard administration morality play. If there’s no one prepared to cut more boldly into this stinking corpse, instead of burying what’s passed off as its heart, quite probably none of us ever will.

Natasha Cica is the director of management and communications consultancy Periwinkle Projects. She is a former federal public servant and adviser to several MPs.

First published in The Age, Nov 29

Natasha Cica

Recalling that most suggestive and niggling of Coles’ offerings, the most meaningful question becomes whether or not there was anyone whispering, or wondering, what was the right thing to do. Without a critical mass of individuals daring to do that, because they adhere to a more solid notion of public administration in which service to the public means something larger than service to the incumbent government, and its mates and favourites, Australia’s up a foetid creek without a paddle. I know there are officers in DFAT and beyond who take very seriously that wider notion of public service and national interest. I also know Canberra is stacked with their doppelgangers, men and women who ruthlessly prioritise promotion, posting and patronage, with eyes increasingly fixed on their optimal superannuation retirement moment. I further know there’s a graded spectrum in the blurrier middle, and that understandably, if not quite admirably, few are prepared to do an Andrew Wilkie.