One can only feel sorry, in retrospect, for Billy Snedden. In April 1973, the then-opposition leader approached the US ambassador in Canberra about his forthcoming trip to the United States, saying he wanted to meet President Nixon. He was told this would be “highly unlikely”, especially given the prime minister, Gough Whitlam, hadn’t yet met him. Snedden also wanted a “warm welcome” from Treasury secretary George Schultz, national security advisor Henry Kissinger and secretary of state Williams Rogers. The ambassador noted:
“He feels it would be better not to visit Washington unless he can have a warm reception. He points out he has been ‘defending the Australian-American alliance’ while it has been under attack by the Labor Party. If he received a lukewarm reception in Washington, it would have a devastating effect on the Australian public …”
In seeking to use the tensions between Whitlam and Nixon, Snedden had confused his own ego and the national interest.
Snedden, were he still with us, might be mildly embarrassed about such revelations in WikiLeaks’ “PlusD” cables from 1973-76, information that was already on the public record but unsearchable and hard to access. Certainly they have made for greater embarrassment for Bob Carr, who as a young Labor figure in the 1970s was happy to offer foreign officials his wide-ranging views on the Labor Party, much the same way WikiLeaks’ earlier trove of diplomatic cables showed Mark Arbib as an enthusiastic and “protected” informant for the Americans.
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There’s a continuing theme here. WikiLeaks’ critics have repeatedly insisted it did untold damage in releasing the diplomatic cables provided by Bradley Manning. US government officials, however, have steadily rowed back from this claim since it was first made in 2010, and admitted the primary consequence of the WikiLeaks cable release was “embarrassment”.
Still, US diplomats say, if people are concerned about later revelations, they won’t be as forthcoming as they might be in their discussions with US officials.
In the case of Snedden, or Carr, perhaps it might have served to curb their egos, rather than genuinely diminish the quality of diplomatic information exchange. Foreign affairs — which we have been told for so long should be a special preserve of secrecy and reticence — may well benefit from political figures understanding they may one day have to account for what they say.