There’s been a sudden explosion of interest in Wikileaks cables down under, after every single one of the US diplomatic cables on Australia was suddenly released online to the public this week. While hardened Aussie journalists insist there are no major “bombshells,” plenty of intriguing new stories are now exploding onto the media landscape. Overall, the US cables reveal a sovereign nation absurdly subservient to US foreign policy, with Australian ministers queuing to discuss confidential party deliberations with their friends in the US embassy.
Previously, only a handful of US cables had been covered by WikiLeaks partners, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers, both owned by the Fairfax media organization. Fairfax has faced prolonged criticism for not releasing original cables along with their stories. They defended themselves by arguing that there were more stories to come and they did not want to give the cables to their media competitors at Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited (who control a whopping 70% of the Australian newspaper industry). But that gig is now up.
A widely reported cable revealed Senator Mark Arbib, currently the Minister for Sport, was a ‘protected’ US source whose identity should be guarded. Latest cables reveal that US officials were regularly having confidential meetings with other government ministers, including Maxine McKew” (a TV personality who famously unseated former PM John Howard in his own electorate) and Michael Danby (a regular visitor with strong links to Israel).
The Israel connection gets another look with a cable revealing that Foreign Minister and former PM Kevin Rudd defied departmental advice when he abstained from voting on a UN resolution calling for investigations into war crimes during the Gaza War. This is only surprising because Australia’s UN voting record is slavishly pro-US and pro-Israel, on a par with diplomatic minnows like Micronesia, Nauru, and Palau. There is little public discussion of this in Australia.
Other cables discuss regional diplomacy, including former PM John Howard’s threats to leaders of the Solomon Islands, where Australia has spent over a billion dollars and eight years to achieve very little real progress. In Fiji, Australia and New Zealand acquiesced to US requests to “not rush” sanctions against the new military junta, for fear of undermining the war effort in Iraq.
John Howard infamously supported Bush and Blair’s invasion of Iraq, and is praised for regularly supporting unpopular US political positions. US officials particularly praised his handling of the local media over questions about the detention and torture of Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks, who has just spoken about his incarceration on Australian TV for the first time. Another Australian detainee from Guantanamo Bay, Mahmoud Habib, has already received an unspecified sum of money from the Australian government as part of an out-of-court settlement that includes absolving the government of liability in his torture case. [*Note: Read this confidential cable where then-opposition leader Kim Beazley tells the US ambassador Hicks is "a ratbag who had almost certainly been up to nefarious things and should probably spend a long time in jail."]
Perhaps we Australians should not be surprised when, for example, our government discusses troop increases in Afghanistan with US officials, while simultaneously denying to us that such talks are taking place. Diplomacy, after all, has its place. But the broader picture painted by these cables makes Australia look like a pathetic US puppet state.
Meanwhile, with so many new Australian Cablegate stories still coming out, it’s hard to understand why Fairfax, who just recorded a $391 million net loss, did not publish them much earlier. One can only assume that they were under too much political pressure.