The very spelling of the name tells us that there is nothing new about the Australian Labor Party being influenced by the United States. It was the American-born King O’Malley, after all, who is given the credit for dropping the English U from labour. And the war-time Labor Prime Minister John Curtin saw that the United States not the United Kingdom would be our country’s saviour.

But probably we should blame a more recent party leader, the former Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, and his contemporary, NSW state secretary Stephen Loosely, for the enthusiasm with which the current sports minister Mark Arbib has long embraced the US alliance. Messrs Carr and Loosely have a fanatical interest in US political history and any budding young Labor man seeking their patronage knew where his historical interest should lie.

The prospect of a free trip or two to Washington, something I referred to in Crikey yesterday, is enough to keep an enthusiast about America enthusiastic.

We shouldn’t forget, either, that it is very flattering for a young man rapidly working his way up the political ladder to be courted by diplomats from a powerful country. It makes you feel important to know that your opinion is valued by others, that you have become a person whose views matter, that you might even have a little influence on the attitude of the United States of America towards your country and its rulers.

In diplomacy, as in most things, flattery can, in fact get you a long way and the US diplomats who courted the young Mark Arbib before he arrived in Canberra as a Senator seem to have used it with great skill. Certainly they got their man to talk freely and frankly about the internal machinations within the Labor Party. The accounts of the conversations covered by the cables WikiLeaks has published might not have contained state secrets but their informant surely made the authors look like very informed people to the readers back home in Washington.

What we don’t know is what else Senator Arbib confided to his diplomat mates. Presumably all their talk was not about the character failings of Kevin Rudd and the likelihood of Julia Gillard becoming a prime ministerial challenger. Questions of leadership might make for interesting gossip in a cable but they are hardly the lifeblood of foreign policy. But given the frankness revealed so far it would be surprising if there was not an Arbib opinion or two proffered about matters of real substance as well. Perhaps we will find out by way of a future WikiLeaks instalment.

The colleagues of Senator Arbib, who have felt obliged to spring to his defence as having said or done nothing out of the ordinary, will be treating him with considerable caution. The cables might just have confirmed what people already believed about him being a disloyal plotter but gossips are rarely trusted and gossiping plotters even less so.

Peter Fray

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