Monday, February 06, 2006

Australia’s Ethical Atrophy Part I

We’re on the verge of being swamped by a tide of ethical atrophy and apathy as the scandal of the AWB paying bribes to Saddam Hussein's regime to ease the sale of Australian wheat to Iraq widens. The whole thing poses for us tremendous ethical confusion. I think it is already showing in the public apathy to what the scandal is about and the profound pessimism that Howard will worm his way out of this one.

Even if it appears that Howard and his ministers knew about the corruption used to secure Australian wheat exports to circumvent the UN sanctions against Iraq, the sense I’m getting from people is that Howard is so slippery and loose with the truth; they expect him to squirm his way out of this one. Just as he did the children overboard affair.

This foreboding lends itself to a sense of futility – why fight Howard if the scandal won’t stick. Why care about this if it changes nothing. Here is just one of the ethical delusions: if we don’t care so much about this corruption, it won’t hurt so much when nothing comes of it anyway.

There is also a sense that even if the scandal does implicate the government, Howard will weather it, and the majority of Australian voters will let him off the hook – because he will protect their mortgages/businesses/private school subsidies/ tax-breaks/dreams of having all-the-above.

The Cole inquiry wants to include other companies (i.e. BHP Billiton) in its investigation of the matter. US Senators have come out screaming that the Australian government mislead them by denying such kickbacks were being paid and insisting they back-off from holding an inquiry into the matter. (Two or more years ago! The Americans suspected. Why didn’t we?) (See here for more news on the scandal and inquiry.)

Howard and his ministers certainly haven't started running for cover yet, So far they've pursued the line of 'plausible deniability' – i.e. along the lines of ‘we didn't know therefore we didn't condone’, ‘they always denied it to us so there was nothing to investigate’, ‘we didn’t know so we couldn't have stopped It’, and the old faithful: ‘based on the information given to me by the department, I believe…’

And finally, in weeks to come I’m sure we will hear that beauty of Australian politics: ‘No, I have not misled parliament. No, I have nothing to apologise for.’

Do you see what I mean? It is as if the script has already been written for this. And that’s because it has, numerous times, as Howard squirmed out of one thing after another, making a mockery of the principle of truth in government.

The government is also pushing back, coming out fighting with their claws drawn over accusations by US Senator Coleman that Australia's then Ambassador to US made reassurances that no impropriety was involved in Australia’s wheat exports to Iraq via the UN food-for-oil program. They’ve taken the indignant approach: 'How dare they insult us etc. etc. I demand an apology…’

Here’s a lesson in Australian politics a la Howard: never apologise, but always demand an apology. Make your critics the bad guys and you’ll come up smelling like roses.

The main danger, this time, of this ethical atrophy is not the destablising of business ethics, or even the habituation of lying and cover-up in government. Rather, it is the entrenchment of indifference and apathy amongst us – the public – over the connivance of industry and government in corruption and the lack of accountability by the state, and our loss of faith that we can – and should – do anything about it.


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