WikiLeaks’ latest “release” — the compilation of over a million Kissinger-era diplomatic cables already publicly available but difficult to track down and unsearchable — will continue to yield valuable nuggets to researchers and journalists, if they can be bothered using the resource, for years to come. There’s no broad theme to the material released, instead a steady flow of vignettes and comments. Here are just a couple for Australia.
Like Bob Carr and former PM Bob Hawke, Paul Keating was a regular interlocutor with US officials in the period covered (1973-76), but absent a cable from October 1976 that isn’t currently available in electronic form, it’s impossible to gauge the extent to which, like Hawke and Carr, Keating was happy to discuss internal party matters with foreign officials in addition to his comments on his opponents.
Instead, Keating is recorded two days after the Dismissal launching an enraged assault on “the Establishment’s determination to get rid of Labor government at any cost” and commenting “in the most bitter terms” about governor-general John Kerr’s deception of Whitlam, flaws in the Australian constitution and how the Dismissal would strengthen extremists. US officials were impressed by Keating: in May 1976, he is identified, along with Mick Young and Antony Whitlam (in his brief parliamentary career), as the only MPs “exposing the political weakness of the government’s programs”. Us officials also noted that NSW ALP legend John “Bruvva” Ducker had suggested after the election loss in 1975 that Keating, though young, would be a good deputy leader to Whitlam.
A particular issue of concern to the Americans is establishing a base for the Omega navigational system for the US Navy, a pre-satellite very low frequency radio navigation system that required a network of broadcast facilities around the world. Embassy officials closely monitored the Whitlam government’s consideration of the issue and the tactics Whitlam was using to outwit the Left and obtain caucus approval for the proposal. The US Navy complained about budgeting problems being caused by ongoing delays, while the embassy stated it “fully appreciate[s] the difficulties the Government of Australia is encountering in connection with Omega and the efforts being made to overcome them”.
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Among the difficulties is the Builders’ Labourers Federation. In 1976, the Canberra Embassy lamented:
“The Builders Laborers Federation (BLF) and the Building Workers Industrial Union have jurisdiction over the construction of almost all buildings and related facilities in Australia. Both unions are led by communists — the BLF by Norm Gallagher who is pro-Chinese — the BWIU by Pat Clancy who is pro-Russian. Both men and their unions have threatened to place a black ban upon the construction of an Omega station …
“In recent months the ALP premier of Tasmania [Bill Neilson], a timid man who is under pressure from the left wing of the Tasmanian party, announced that he doesn’t want an Omega station constructed in Tasmania because it might make Tasmania a nuclear target… What is clear is that a decision on the part of the USG and the GOA to press ahead with Omega will cause major problems including the possibility of a head-on confrontation with communist-led trade unions and their radical political supporters. There is also a distinct possibility that after having provoked the controversy both governments will be unable to get the facility constructed. This would be a major defeat for the GOA and would greatly encourage these elements here who want all US facilities removed from Australia.”
Eventually an Omega facility would be built at Darriman in Victoria, but wouldn’t commence operation until 1982.
Defence matters were an ongoing irritant between US officials and Labor leaders. In August 1976, NSW Deputy Premier Jack Ferguson rang the Sydney consulate and, saying he had the approval of Premier Neville Wran, told the Americans that nuclear-powered warships weren’t welcome in Sydney because it would lead to protests, but that the NSW government preferred to keep the matter “confidential” and didn’t want a confrontation. Indeed, as Michael Pugh later wrote, Wran was able to keep in place an informal and quiet prohibition on nuclear-powered vessels in Sydney without anyone finding out until the 1980s.