Doubtless mortified at being scooped by Fairfax, The Australian has been alternately downplaying the WikiLeaks Australian cables, attacking Phillip Dorling, criticising Fairfax for failing to release the cables — ahem, days after Crikey made the same point — and, once Fairfax obliged by screen-dumping dozens of cables on its website, cut-and-pasting them and trying to turn some crumbs from the Fairfax table into a feast, or at least a tasty morsel, for its readership.

But like Fairfax, News Limited requires a certain suspension of disbelief regarding the cables. To conjure up a story from many of the cables, you have to take US diplomats’ often-confused thinking on local politics as accurate, and their reports of comments from local figures, as correct depictions of conversations, rather than recycling of gossip and speculation.

You also have to regard it as unusual that politicians speak to diplomats. In fact in Canberra it’s almost impossible to be a journalist, senior public servant, politician, staffer, trade unionist or business figure and not talk to diplomats, especially at the constant procession of functions held in Parliament House during parliamentary sitting weeks. Thus it was that Canberran ALP figure and former senior staffer Michael Cooney found a conversation with a diplomat eventually transformed by Oz attack Shihtzu James Massola — temporarily reassigned from attacking bloggers and rival journalists — into an outing as a “secret US source”.

More peculiar though was today’s effort by Patricia Karvelas, about the last of the decent political journalists left at the paper, to turn a single comment by South Australian right-wing (in all senses of the term) power broker Don Farrell into a claim that Julia Gillard “was eyeing off Mr Rudd’s job before Tony Abbott replaced Malcolm Turnbull as Coalition leader”. The single attributed comment “campaigning for the leadership” (in cable 09CANBERRA545) is ambiguous — the leadership when?

After Rudd, as the text immediately following it suggests, or immediately? Moreover The Oz’s interpretation is undermined by the observation a sentence later: “At present, the question of a successor to Rudd is probably two elections away.”

The peculiarity lies in the failure to spot the more obvious significance of Farrell’s remarks. Farrell always disliked Kevin Rudd because Rudd’s initial popular support and dislike of Labor’s factions was a direct threat to power brokers like him. In 2006 Farrell strongly supported Beazley, who worked within the factional system, over Rudd — to the extent that one of the reasons Farrell knifed South Australian senator Linda Kirk was her support for Rudd in defiance of his demand she back Beazley.

This issue is specifically addressed in another cable in 2009 (09CANBERRA188) by the Americans: “Two ALP Right factional leaders we have spoken to, AWU President Joe Ludwig and Senator Don Farrell, former head of the SDA in South Australia and the most influential powerbroker in that state, both agreed that Rudd’s political power in the ALP is now unchallenged, but they opined that the factions would reassert themselves once Rudd’s popularity declines.”

That’s about the most accurate observation to emerge from the WikiLeaks material so far. The cables clearly show a factional powerbroker determined to bide his time until he could strike back at Rudd, which is exactly what happened.

Peter Fray

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