On the hoof: But not everything deemed fit for human consumption was as it seemed.

On the hoof: But not everything deemed fit for human consumption was as it seemed. Photo: Peter Braig

This week I achieved an FOI record which is probably going to be difficult to beat. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet delivered up to me under the Freedom of Information Act a report I first asked for on December 2, 1982, 29 years, 11 months and about two weeks ago.

Four in every 10 people in Canberra weren't born then, and five in every eight would have no personal memory of the events to which the report refers - perhaps one reason why the department, after recent cogitation that lasted 18 months, including multiple consultations with at least half a dozen federal agencies and multiple agencies in the states, finally decided to release it and without any claims of exemption.

I first asked for the document on December 2, 1982 - the first day of the FOI Act. The department, soon after, ''deferred'' giving me access, saying that doing so could compromise continuing police investigations and prosecutions.

The department did not reconsider access even after it became clear that a stage of desultory and usually ineffective police investigations and prosecutions was over. I reminded the department about this in August last year - and, even then, it took more than 16 months of consultations before the document was released.

The document is appendix H of the royal commission into meat substitution, prepared by Justice Ted Woodward - in effect the ''brief'' given to the Australian Federal Police and the Commonwealth Director of Prosecutions after a massive scandal in 1980-81 in which it was found that kangaroo, horse, donkey and sheep meat, and possibly meat from other animals, had been sold to meat buyers in the United States as prime quality Australian beef. The scandal led to a shutdown in the then $600 million-a-year Australian beef trade to the US, and made life difficult for attempts to sell a further $400 million worth to other countries such as Japan.

It became clear quickly that while some of the rorts which had led to substitution came from shonks on the edge of a low-margin meat industry, there were significant meat traders involved in the racket.

It was also evident that many meat inspectors, state and federal, had been bribed and compromised, and that AFP officers had been less than diligent and, at the least, compromised. The system of state and federal meat inspection and protection of the quality of the meat supply - including the domestic meat supply - was, in both the literal and metaphoric sense of the word, a shambles. (Justice Woodward was ultimately to use the phrase ''insufficient, costly, poorly managed, and in some respects, corrupt''.) Bureaucratic supervision had been a disgrace or worse - and newspapers openly alleged that on the night that a royal commission was announced in June 1981, thousands and thousands of documents were put through the shredders at the department's headquarters in Barton. This was, it was hinted, not only to conceal political involvement in a highly political industry, but also evidence that officials had ignored evidence and warnings of the scandal.

Some of those accused of being involved had links to significant figures in the Coalition, particularly in the National Party, and one important government backbencher, Bert Kelly from South Australia, was telling everyone who wanted to listen that he had long warned Peter Nixon, minister for primary industry, and his department how wide open they were to such a scandal.

There were also heavy hints that members of the Melbourne Smorgon family - a rich and philanthropic clan closely involved in the arts, but also running a steel, glass, plastics and recycling empire - would be implicated. The Smorgon fortune had begun in the meat business, and was still heavily involved in the export trade.

Around the world was a good deal of laughter at America's expense. Even five years later, the main hamburger chain customer would find itself still being accused of selling ''Skippy burgers''.

Malcolm Fraser made a host of quick decisions in an effort to get the trade resumed. Anyone fingered by early inspections was suspended from the trade. Much more rigorous inspection was provided and emergency legislation went through. The Americans were promised a searching investigation, and action.

Woodward, a former head of ASIO and a man who had advised Gough Whitlam on land rights, was pressed to report quickly - and did. He took the overview and was scathing of almost everyone. But it was up to a heavily criticised department, a heavily criticised and unenthusiastic AFP, and the DPP to follow through with prosecutions.

The effect was something like the much more recent commission into the wheat for oil scheme - the facts emerged, up to a point, at a public inquiry, but it was left to police and lawyers to follow through. Years afterwards, it becomes clear that the task has been taken up with little enthusiasm, and that hardly anyone - and certainly few of the major offenders - has been punished. Meat inspectors on the public payroll who were taking bribes are dealt with under internal disciplinary provisions.

Some of the inaction - which has long marked the aftermath of loud public inquiries in Australia - could have been predicted by the royal commissioner, who had complained about the lack of police zeal, want of investigative vigour and, indeed, seeming incapacity to regard dodgy practices in such a field as priority matters for cops preferring high profile, if almost unaccountable, actions against fraud, drugs and terrorism.

As criminologists later critically reviewing the AFP response commented, the problem is that police set their own priorities, and decide for themselves how many resources will be devoted to an investigation, and on what timetable. In the years since, this is a problem honed by the increasingly political nature of the judgments made: put bluntly, the AFP hardly ever ''solves'' anything that could embarrass the government of the day, whatever protestations are made by ministers that they want a searching and thorough inquiry.

Woodward said that what characterised the problem was:

  • A general unwillingness of Commonwealth authorities to act decisively to investigate allegations;
  • An unhealthy relationship between the meat establishments and the inspectors and other public officials assigned to their premises and supposed to monitor them;
  • An attitude on the part of senior Canberra officers that not much could be done to detect malpractices, and that these were in any event matters for the police, not themselves;
  • A lack of expertise and, often, a marked lack of interest by police asked to investigate malpractice; and
  • A somewhat similar lack of enthusiasm from prosecutors, unless a case was absolutely airtight and guaranteed of success.

Perhaps we are lucky that nothing like this could occur today - in our beef trade or with any other attempt at fraud on the taxpayer.

The want of any police enthusiasm for making sure the law was being enforced was hardly resisted by the agriculture department of the day.

As Woodward put it, describing what happened before the inquiry, ''Not enough cases were passed over to the police for action and those that were handed over were not conveyed with any sense of urgency, importance or great interest in the outcome.''

Prosecutors showed a similar reluctance to get their hands bloody, or in pushing investigators to go further.

This was in contrast with some other scandals of the day, not least the so-called Greek Social Security Conspiracy, involving hundreds of police in raids upon Greek families in search of evidence of systemic attempts to defraud the Commonwealth of invalid pensions - allegedly by contriving to have sympathetic doctors agree they had bad backs or soft tissue injuries that were hard to disprove.

On day one, 83 Greek-Australians were arrested in simultaneous raids, and the head of the investigation described it as ''the biggest breakthrough in the history of the police force''. He predicted 1400 more arrests and the extradition of 300 people from Greece. Seven hundred pensions were abruptly cancelled.

Ultimately 180 people were charged with conspiracy. But there was never any conspiracy proved - a tiny handful of convictions - and soon, the beginning of dropped charges, heavy orders for costs against the Crown, restored pensions, and compensation payments by the department.

The affair - designed to stop what was said to be $10 million a year in fraud - cost the Commonwealth more than $100 million in court costs, legal aid and compensation.

Small wonder, perhaps that police, busy with such ''real'' police work would pay little attention to the integrity of a meat export trade worth a mere $1 billion - or that a detective who had made desultory and inconclusive investigations into one allegation developed a habit afterwards of dropping around at the meatworks for free meat. Probably not kangaroo.