Diplomats move around the corridors of power in Canberra, rarely seen. The lesser ones sometimes travel in packs. They have access to ministers, politicians and senior bureaucrats, sometimes beyond even that of the best-connected lobbyists.
They use this access to help achieve two key goals: to keep their own governments apprised of what’s happening here, and to influence Australian government policy. They have no direct power, but their influence is significant and mostly wielded out of public gaze.
The US Ambassador, Jeffrey Bleich, is the most important, and presides over 30 staff in Canberra and nearly 40 more in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. But Israeli Ambassador Yuval Rotem is also highly influential among politicians, businesspeople and journalists.
One of the key revelations of the WikiLeaks cables for many Australians was the extent to which Labor figures such as Mark Arbib, Bill Shorten and Michael Danby, confided in US diplomats. But diplomats are part of the fabric of political life. There are regular exchanges between MPs of all parties and diplomats at Canberra functions, all of which are subsequently written up by diplomats for dispatch to their home capitals, no matter how anodyne the information acquired.
Most MPs are also in “parliamentary friends” groups for individual countries, bringing them into semi-regular contact with embassy staff at functions.
Australia’s most important economic partners receive additional access to MPs. US diplomats, who are aggressive in representing the interests of US corporations, are allowed under the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement to obtain confidential briefings on regulatory changes with implications for US companies, sometimes in greater detail than information available to local companies. In 2006, ahead of crucial changes to Australian media laws, US diplomats received a confidential briefing on the government’s plans for changes to media regulation, including changes to foreign ownership restrictions in the media.
The Israeli government is another highly-influential player in Canberra. While the local Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council uses private funding to sponsor trips by MPs and journalists to Israel (so that they “can see for themselves and they are not just being influenced by the biased media or the agendas run by hard-left organisations”), accommodation and incidental costs are often met by the Israeli Foreign Affairs department.
The local embassy also cultivates journalists, commentators and business by working closely with the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce, the extraordinarily influential business group that regularly boasts the most senior political figures among its guests. The AICOC also annually sponsors major business trips to Israel, frequently led by senior government ministers — Bill Shorten will lead one at the end of April, the Embassy happily announced in March.
It’s an approach mimicked by the Taiwanese (represented in Canberra by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office) and Chinese governments, both of which extensively sponsor trips for MPs.
However, it is the US Embassy, sitting like a benign vice-regent in a neo-Georgian pile across State Circle from Parliament House, which wields the greatest power. US ambassadors are invariably close to the incumbent administration; Canberra is a posting reserved for close political allies of the president — the current ambassador, Jeff Bleich, is a long-time friend of Barack Obama’s and ran his campaign finance committee.
Kevin Rudd welcomed his appointment as foreign minister in September 2010 in the company of Bleich. While Bleich anointed the appointment of Bob Carr by immediately declaring the US “had no concerns” about Carr’s appointment — imagine that statement from any other country.
A former US ambassador, Bush administration appointee Tom Schieffer, attended Liberal Party functions and intervened in local politics to criticise then-opposition leader Mark Latham several times during the Iraq war.
Schieffer was, however, the exception. Any ambassador who looks like they are trying to influence domestic politics is automatically failing in their task. Influence is wielded most effectively when it is out of sight, in private meetings, over drinks and dinner, in organising travel abroad. That’s where some of Canberra’s most effective operators do their work.