Saturday, 25 August 2007

Piecing together a scandalous jigsaw

Article published on Arts Hub, Friday 24 August.

“Your editorial suggesting the Australian Government went to war in Iraq to protect its wheat market is deeply offensive and utterly untrue” Alexander Downer, July 6, 2006

In January, the version 1.0 team began work on a performance inquiry into the so-called ‘wheat for weapons’ scandal in which monopoly wheat exporter AWB Ltd paid bribes or ‘kickbacks’ to the government of Saddam Hussein right up until Australia declared war on Iraq in March 2003. The basic facts of the scandal are pretty simple, and highly disturbing. Whilst operating under a sanctions regime whose purpose was to prevent Saddam access to hard currency to continue his weapons programs, AWB was asked in 1999 to pay a new fee for ‘trucking’, payable not only in cash but also in US dollars. Rather than risk missing out on a big sale, AWB agreed to pay a ‘trucking fee’ of US$7.2 million in cash to Iraq, knowing that this was against the spirit of the sanctions. After convincing AWB to cheat once, Iraq continued to increase the ‘trucking fee’ over the next four years, and AWB, sliding rapidly down the slippery slope, continued to pay. In all it seems $290 million was paid by AWB to the government of Saddam Hussein. Worse, AWB actively tried to conceal these payments through a string of front companies. Worse still, the Australian government had very close ties to AWB and its management, and despite 35 documented warnings that the company was engaged in corrupt behaviour, chose not to investigate, and instead aggressively defended AWB against all concerned parties. Even worse, the Australian government aggressively pushed the case for war against Iraq, and one of the justifications used was that Iraq was rorting the sanctions program. AWB was the biggest single rorter, and the Australian government their biggest defender. In 2005 the United Nations held an inquiry, and the resultant report from Paul Volker recommended further inquiry into companies such as AWB. In December 2005, the Cole Commission began hearing evidence in Sydney. Enter performance group version 1.0.

version 1.0 has made theatre from inquiries before, most notably our 2004 project CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident). This time however, we weren’t fully prepared for the magnitude of the task. The transcript of the Cole Inquiry’s 76 days of public hearings totals almost 8500 pages. Add to this the 2000 or so pages of Cole’s report, and thousands upon thousands of pages of journalism and other commentary, and you have a veritable mountain of paper. Scaling this mountain, and transforming it into theatre was never going to be simple. However, the precise degree of difficulty of this task caught everyone by surprise. Making performance from documents that are defiantly non-theatrical is something that version 1.0 has become quite skilled at in recent years, but to say that this process has been challenging is a severe understatement. As I described this process in an interview in February: “sometimes I think it would easier to knock over a brick wall with my head.” I was only half joking.

The usual line from government spokespeople like Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has been variations of “it’s all very complicated”. Like the best political spin, this is true and misleading at the same time. Yes, the Cole Inquiry and associated documents are mind-bogglingly complex in the mass of details they continually disgorge. But as I described at the start of this article, the issue itself is pretty straightforward. Downer’s insistence that everything about this scandal is too complicated encourages citizens not to waste their time thinking closely about this. Such strategic avoidance of thinking, and dismissal on the grounds that ordinary citizens won’t ever understand and therefore should not try, obviously serves very particular political interests, especially in this election year. Part of the urgency that drives version 1.0’s attempt to render this inquiry theatrical is to actively resist these exhortations to stop thinking, and instead to encourage citizens to closely interrogate the processes by which our democracy operates, and the ways in which our representatives, both governmental and commercial, act in our name. That is not to say however that this theatre is either didactic or reductive. To encourage people to think more closely about an issue is not to tell people how they must think. No preaching to the converted for us, thanks very much.

But despite the ideological imperative that drives Downer’s statement, it is true that the Cole Inquiry is concerned with fine details. The inquiry transcript shows a forensic investigation of shades of gray in the legally and ethically murky world of the international wheat trade. The lawyers assisting the Inquiry ask probing questions of minute and often-impenetrable detail, in no particular narrative or chronological order. These include the date of a meeting, the distribution list of an email, the exact significance of a scribble on a document. Much of it is hardly riveting stuff. Additionally, the regular response to such questioning – “I don’t recall” – advances neither dramatic nor investigative coherence. One of the key witnesses in our performative remix of the Inquiry, the CEO of AWB Andrew Lindberg, used variations of “I don’t recall” 158 times in a single day’s testimony. I know, I counted them. When Commissioner Cole handed down his report in November 2006, Lindberg was deemed to be a “witness of truth”. This is somewhat baffling to us after reading hundreds of pages of denials, evasions, and refusals to admit that anything was even wrong.

Against the Australian government’s line “it’s very complicated” and AWB’s line “I can’t recall”, version 1.0 attempt in Deeply offensive and utterly untrue to put the pieces of the kickback jigsaw together, and in the process entertain, provoke, disturb, and inform. Together with our audiences we seek to produce accountability for both corrupt behaviour and negligence. The task might be impossible, but since when has that ever been a reason not to try?
version 1.0’s Deeply offensive and utterly untrue opens on August 24 at Carriage Works, Sydney. For more information see


Christopher Tomkinson said...

Dear David,

Congratualtions to you all on a fine night in the theatre.

It was dead good.

David Williams said...

Thanks Christopher!

nice to hear from an audience member - the Carriage Works bar doesn't quite facilitate the same kind of alcohol-fueled debriefing as the old Performance Space...


Christopher Tomkinson said...

No. A very impressive foyer but hard to fill up and get that energy of exchange going - even if the theatre filled up three times over.

I was just wondering whether you were surprised the Mr Cole didn't request a broadening of the terms of inquiry?

Also is the term 'a witness of truth' a legal term or just some mystery he concocted to cover the obvous evasions of Lindberg's memory lapses?

David Williams said...

Hi Chris,

On the terms of reference question, Commissioner Cole maintained on several occasions that he had a big enough job to do already, and that in his opinion it wasn't his place to change the terms of reference. As far as he was concerned, he'd been given a job to do, and he was to do that job, not ask for another job.

On the witness of truth issue, most of the journalists who covered the inquiry that I've spoken to were quite shocked at this finding, more than anything else it seems. In my humble opinion, it may have something to do with the fact that on the last day of hearings (Day 76), Lindberg cried on the stand, and his wife rushed up from the gallery to comfort him. Cole calls a recess, and then the whole thing ends. So there was the appearance of contrition and personal suffering right at the end, and this perhaps swayed the Commissioner to forget the hundreds and hundreds of 'I don't knows' and other evasions.

It does remind me of something that a refugee tribunal lawyer said at a forum on performance and asylum: If a refugee doesn't perform correctly, then they are not seen as being genuine. If they don't cry at the right time in their story, or indeed if they cry at the wrong time, then the Tribunal does not believe their story. If they do not perform correctly by crying at the right moment, then they are not deemed to be genuine. I think a similar thing applies in this instance. The crying occurs at the perfect dramatic moment, and while it is far from an admission of guilt or responsibility, it effectively demonstrated that Lindberg was feeling bad, and this feeling was truthful. A true feeling that erases past testimony that might have been untruthful... If only we could all pull that off level of performance (and get a $3 million golden handshake at the same time)!


Christopher Tomkinson said...

David, your cynicism knows no bounds. :-)

In not seeking to follow the trail as far as it would lead it seems to me that Mr Cole then is somewhat complicit in the whitewash. Obviously it was a big job and our Foreign Minister was at pains to tell us how complex it all was - but isn't that why they earn the big bucks and get the car?

Very interesting comments on the role of emotion/ performance/ expectation. "All the world's a ...blah, blah, blah"

David Williams said...

Hi Christopher,

My cynicism does know some bounds (I'm basically an optimistic pragmatist, if that's not too much of an oxymoron), but my skepticism is somewhat broader, and my bullshit detector is finely tuned...

if you're interested in the (repeated) performances required by refugees to prove their legitimacy, there's a great paper by Sophie Nield in a book called 'Contemporary Theatres in Europe' (2006), in a university library near you! Or there's another paper by Alison Jeffers at the Uni. of Manchester in the online journal 'Platform' (don't have the link on me, but Google's good for that!)