They’re a weird mob, American civil servants, in trying to understand Australia.
The leaked US embassy cables from Canberra, while so far small in number, provide a fascinating and almost anthropological view of Australia, as understood by outsiders.
Our system of government, industrial relations and way of life are all described in the cables, as American bureaucrats with little exposure to the country are tasked with distilling into short executive summaries for their masters back home in Washington DC the ways and meanings of 22 million people. Additionally there is a near forensic disassembling of internal Labor Party gossip, but whether this is from Fairfax’s cable selection bias or a genuine overbearing interest in the party of government is uncertain.
In September 2006, just over a year before Australia went to the polls, staff from the US embassy in Canberra travelled to Sydney (cable: 80743) to get the lay of the land for the forthcoming election. Their conclusions are almost comical and highlight the dangers of taking the opinions recorded in the documents as fact.
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At the next election, the embassy concluded “interest rates will be a key political issue for the 2007 federal elections”, with industrial relations off the radar since “the consensus was that changes to the industrial relations laws will be at most a contributing factor”. The 2007 federal election came to be known as the WorkChoices election, and the Act was repealed almost as soon as the new parliament convened.
Elaborating on why interest rates are so important to the Australian people, the author helpfully explains large mortgages are “needed to buy the expensive real estate in Sydney” and because of “adjustable interest rates”, a practice almost unheard of in the US home loan market, “a rise in rates affected most voters’ disposable income”.
The embassy then goes on to the describe the strange and recently abolished “award” system administered by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Noting that business leaders believed the 100-year-old system had made it “impossible for businesses to control labour costs and compete internationally”, the arrival of WorkChoices had “ended the steady increases in wages and benefits”. Unfortunately, the report noted, the booming economy had continued to push wages higher, and besides, “many employees are covered by awards or state compensation laws that pre-dated the 2005 workplace law and have not yet expired”.
In January 2009, while covering Australian reaction to the unfolding three-week Gaza War (cable: 186376), the US embassy was perplexed by the muted response from the Australian government and the Australian people. It attributed the public reaction mostly to the summer holidays, writing under the heading “The Tepid Public Reaction” that “the Australian public has shown little reaction to the Gaza fighting because it is happening when many are on vacation”. The Israeli embassy was “very satisfied”, the US Counselor wrote, with the Israeli Ambassador describing media coverage as “surprisingly balanced”.
Supportive comments from Prime Minister Rudd was due in part to Tel Aviv’s strategy of “playing to Rudd’s vanity” on foreign affairs.
Then deputy PM Julia Gillard — whom in a different cable (1074) the US noted as desiring to “move to the Centre” — “had asked tough questions and shown good understanding” in a phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert. This had greatly relieved the Israeli ambassador, since it had been “very difficult to persuade Olmert to make the call”.
Finally, a massive amount of content from the cables is devoted to internal Labor Party shenanigans. Whether this is due to Fairfax selectively choosing which cables to cover, the fact the Labor party has been the party of government (and therefore interest) for most of the time covered by the cables, or simply whether Labor people like to talk about themselves, will be unknown until all the cables are released.
The reports from the US embassy go to great lengths to explain the manoeuvring inside the ALP. With back-stabbing, jockeying for position and the rise and fall of the favoured sons and daughters of the factions reported in detail, the cables are fascinating sources of information, but are clearly not impartial or unbiased statements of fact.
So far the Canberra cables are a microcosm of one of the issues raised by the WikiLeaks’ method of releasing material. These are primary sources full of interesting information, but they are not unbiased sources of information. They require critical thinking and analysis, either your own or by people you trust.