If it wasn’t aware before, the government should have known from June 6 this year that it faced a potential problem regarding US diplomatic cables, along with virtually every other government in the world and many of the planet’s biggest corporations.

That was the day Wired broke the story that PFC Bradley Manning had been arrested for leaking material to WikiLeaks — at that stage, most famously the Apache helicopter footage of the slaughter of a number of Iraqis. Manning had been shopped to US authorities by “reformed hacker” Adrian Lamo, to whom Manning had confided that he had “exfiltrated” large volumes of classified material from a system Manning characterised as having “weak servers, weak logging, weak physical security, weak counter-intelligence, inattentive signal analysis.”

There were rumours prior to that point that WikiLeaks had secured diplomatic cables but for the first time in June, Manning’s arrest was accompanied by reports he had claimed to have leaked 260,000 diplomatic cables.

Despite claims by some online conspiracy theorists, this remains the uncontested official account of how the material ended up with WikiLeaks.

Julian Assange initially denied WikiLeaks possessed the cables, possibly in an attempt to protect Manning or to keep US authorities confused as to what WikiLeaks did or didn’t possess.

In any event, from that point in June, the Australian Government should have been aware of what might potentially occur as a result of the profound lapse in security within the US military — even if the Americans had failed to alert them as to the breach of security.

Admittedly the Rudd Government, as it then was, had other things on its mind, and continued so to do until September, but officials and, ultimately, the re-elected Gillard Government, have no excuse about not being prepared. They should have been prepared for what its members may have said to US diplomats, which might be publicly revealed in the cables, and prepared on the position of the Government vis-à-vis Julian Assange, given he is an Australian citizen and potentially a target for US retaliation — judicial or otherwise.

The preparation of the Government’s position on Assange at a political level might have included noting what Labor in Opposition said about David Hicks. Labor called for his extradition to Australia, and then-shadow Attorney-General Robert McClelland repeatedly demanded Hicks be given speedy access to justice.

McClelland’s position on Assange seems at odds with his view about David Hicks when in Opposition, at least in sentiment.

The Government also faces the problem of how to handle commentary on it by US diplomats, but that is one beyond its control and hard to prepare for. Only the Americans can help there.

Given ample preparation time, the handling of WikiLeaks and Assange by the Prime Minister and Attorney-General has been absolutely awful. Worse than looking like vassals of the US Government – which has plainly got the backs up of a number of backbenchers – it has looked confused. The Prime Minister’s pre-emptive declaration of illegality – from a former lawyer, yet – gave way to vacillation about what exactly was illegal, and where, and by whom.

The Attorney-General’s extended explanations of what might be illegal where would have looked embarrassing coming from a backbencher, let alone the country’s first law officer. Liberal moderates like George Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull have had the luxury of criticising the Government’s hardline approach and mocking its confusion.

In contrast, Kevin Rudd, for all that his reputation has allegedly been damaged by the cables, has handled matters sensibly. The man responsible for his humiliation via some very undiplomatic US cables will be afforded the appropriate assistance, Rudd has said, and won’t, despite shilly shallying from McClelland, have his passport cancelled.

Moreover, Rudd noted, the Americans are responsible for the leaks. Indeed, Manning’s statements, if true, demonstrate that the Americans in fact were profoundly negligent in their security arrangements.

This is another example that raises the concern that the Government, and specifically Julia Gillard’s office, doesn’t do the basics properly. Why was the Prime Minister allowed to wing it on a key issue like the legality of WikiLeaks? Why was McClelland allowed to look like a bumbler? Where was the coordination? The problem extended into this week, with a gap opening up between what Kevin Rudd was saying and what the PM and Attorney-General had said.

This is the Government that messed up its Cabinet announcement, having to reinstate positions and placate major stakeholders after the fact. It’s the Government that has botched its handling of the MDB Plan, quite apart from its dispute with the relevant authority over legal advice. This is the Government still struggling to resolve the fairly straightforward issue of the treatment of state royalties in its mining tax.

All in a matter of three months since it survived the election.

A backbench revolt over WikiLeaks is one thing. Backbench revolts used to be a great Labor tradition — just ask Bob Hawke, another Labor leader who got in trouble with his backbench over being too close to the Americans. The Prime Minister herself has called for a feistier Caucus, and there is broad agreement that Labor could do with less acquiescence and more debate – certainly than was the case in the Rudd years.

Incompetence at the heart of the Government is another matter altogether, and it increasingly looks like the Gillard Government has a real problem there.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW