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Issue #1589      April 17, 2013

Intrigue, contrivance and the undermining of a government

Part 1

Copies of cables from the US embassy in Australia released by WikiLeaks in 2011 gave some insight into the slavishness of the “special relationship” Australian governments have had with successive US administrations. (See Guardian #1517, 07-09-2011 – Wikileaks Insights into the “special relationship”) A further release of cables by WikiLeaks last week has shed more light on informants within the ALP during the Whitlam era who kept US diplomats abreast of developments within Labor ranks and the trade union movement. They raise serious questions about where the loyalty of some of Australia’s leading politicians really lies and the role played by the US in Australian politics.

Whitlam was a strong advocate of peace and disarmament.

The cables are part of a massive collection of 1.7 million documents which were transferred to the US National Archives in 2006. Some are still heavily censored, but none-the-less WikiLeaks has extracted much of interest. Reading them, it is not surprising that Foreign Minister Bob Carr reneged on his commitment to raise the question of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with Swedish Foreign Minister during his recent visit to Australia.

If Assange leaves the Ecuador’s London Embassy he will be immediately arrested, deported to Sweden which refuses to provide guarantees that he will not be sent to the US to face execution or a life sentence for his role in the release of earlier diplomatic cables.

During the Whitlam government the then ACTU president Bob Hawke was one of the US Embassy’s most valued Labor contacts according to Philip Dorling writing in the Sydney Morning Herald (09-04-2013). Another valued informant was Kerry Packer’s prize industrial relations reporter for The Bulletin, Bob Carr, now Foreign Minister in the Gillard Labor government. Other Labor figures include MP Race Matthews, Ken Stone (secretary Victorian Trades Hall Council) and Jim Coleman (secretary WA Trades and Labor Council).

There were officials from government departments. These included Richard Woolcott, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Douglas McKay, secretary of the Department of Overseas Trade (Cable dated 24-01-1975). Liberals such as Jim Killen and Mal Brough also rate a mention.

The Whitlam Labor government was elected in 1972 on a popular and progressive platform for social reform and progressive changes to foreign policy. Hundreds of thousands of people had joined the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s movement was gaining strength and trade unions were taking militant action in defence of wages that were being eroded by inflation.

The government attempted to implement its platform which recognised the importance of land rights, of women’s equality, promoted multiculturalism, the arts, Indigenous rights and saw introduced a range of important reforms to public health services, education, housing, and social security. University fees were abolished, Medibank (now Medicare) was introduced, means testing of pensions abolished for over 75s, unemployment and sickness benefits were raised to the same level as other benefits, just to name a few reforms in a massive program.

On the economic front, it was a mixed bag of reforms with tariff reductions in the manufacturing sector taking a heavy toll on jobs although supported by retraining and other programs.

Raid on ASIO

One of the boldest and most risky acts of the government was Attorney General Lionel Murphy’s unannounced raid on the Melbourne offices of Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in February 1973. The untouchable ASIO came under his ministerial responsibility. Murphy believed that ASIO was withholding or even contemplating destroying information on a security threat against Yugoslav PM Džemal Bijedić who was due to visit Australia.

The Ustashi, a Croat fascist organisation that collaborated with the Nazis, had secret military training facilities in Australia. Several leading Liberal MPs were known to have an association with them. Australian Ustashi members were involved in terrorist bombings and ASIO was withholding information from the government.

The cables discuss the raid and report on subsequent action by NSW and Commonwealth police on April 2, where police raided 68 Croatian homes, made arrests and seized explosives and a pistol.

Murphy was to pay a high price for his actions.

Foreign investment

The Minister for Minerals and Energy in the Whitlam Government, Rex Connor, and Whitlam were concerned at the high level of foreign ownership of Australia’s mining sector. They were determined to prevent that level rising and to have the benefits of mining returned to the Australian people. They had a policy restricting foreign ownership of new mines to 50 percent, in practice allowing up to 75 percent. They attempted a far more serious move than Rudd or Gillard’s tax on mining profits.

The Petroleum and Mineral Resources Authority Bill provided for the establishment of statutory government-owned corporations which could take an equity stake in mining corporations, thus ensuring 50 percent Australian ownership where this could not be obtained by other means by foreign investors.

The government also gained powers to control exports so as to prevent large surpluses on Japanese markets which were driving down prices. Needless to say these measures were strongly opposed by the mining sector, the Opposition, Treasury officials and Murdoch media who did their best to subvert them.

Foreign policy

Whitlam was no quisling. He took a number of measures to assert Australia’s independence and sovereignty. These ranged from adopting “Advance Australia Fair” as Australia’s national anthem (instead of “God Save the Queen”) and replacing British honours by a system of Australian honours (Order of Australia, etc) through to taking a stand against US imperialism, as in Vietnam.

One of its first actions was to withdraw Australia’s forces from Vietnam and begin negotiations for the recognition of the People’s Republic of China, while breaking them off with Taiwan.

The government used the powers of the Minister for Defence to grant exemptions from military conscription (and hence being sent to fight the US’s war in Vietnam) to exempt everyone. Draft resisters were released from jail. Australia voted at the UN in favour of sanctions against apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

In the international arena, Whitlam recognised the importance of Asia with particular emphasis on China and Indonesia. His emphasis on Indonesia and fear of communism (FRETILIN) on Australia’s doorstep was behind his betrayal of the East Timorese when Indonesia decided to invade with the departure of the Portuguese.

Whitlam’s support for the ANZUS Treaty did not translate into blind compliance to every demand of the US administration. In May 1975, the Socialist Party of Australia (now the Communist Party of Australia) wrote to Whitlam asking a series of questions on foreign policy. In his detailed response, Whitlam indicated, “The Australian Government takes the attitude that there should not be foreign military bases, stations installations in Australia. We honour agreements covering existing stations. We do not favour the extension or prolongation of any of those existing ones.” (See Guardian #1500, 11-05-2011 – Prime Minister Whitlam writes to Socialist Party of Australia (page 9 of PDF))

Whitlam was a strong advocate of peace and disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and supported the concept of nuclear-free zones including one in the South Pacific.

Socialist countries

On the question of the socialist countries, “The government believes in the universality of international relationships, regardless of ideological differences, and has actively pursued this course by, for example, establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, the German Democratic Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam,” Whitlam said in his letter.

One cable from the US Embassy states that Whitlam’s views on Vietnam were being reported at some length because, “they underline magnitude of problem we face in making any impact on GOA [government of Australia – Ed] on Viet-Nam as long as Whitlam and Labor are in office.” A telling statement indeed! (Cable dated 10-02-1975)

The government also expressed its interest in attending meetings of the Non-Aligned Movement group of countries, an indication of its seriousness about being independent.

The cables quote Whitlam when asked in an interview with Newsweek, what he expects to get from a relationship with China: “The last 23 years we … took an unrealistic and objectionable attitude. It is quite absurd for any country, particularly in the Pacific region, to deny itself the opportunity of the officially (sic) communication with a quarter of the human race.” (Cable dated 09-03-1973)

When asked what will happen in Indo China following the Vietnam War, Whitlam responds: “I am not going to make a prediction about that at this time. I will predict that Australia would never again be inveigled into intruding there. Once bitten, forever shy.”

In other words, under a Whitlam government, Australia would not be drawn into another US imperialist war in our region.

In the same interview Whitlam was asked if relations with the US seemed to be cooling. Whitlam responds: “Now that the cease-fire has been achieved in Vietnam, the cause of friction should evaporate. Our predecessors were prepared to tolerate America’s actions in Vietnam. We were not.”

In response to another question, he again spoke out stridently and with insight: “Countries that have tried to preserve political dominance as a means of preserving economic predominance have beggared themselves in the process. Britain has beggared itself; America has weakened itself.”

The cables also report on Whitlam’s concept for a regional organisation or discussion group that would include the People’s Republic of China, but not include the US, Russia or Taiwan (Cable dated 19-03-1973).

Whitlam, according to the cable, describes his proposal as an initiative to help free the region from “great power rivalries that have bedevilled its [the region’s] progress for decades.” The regional forum would be designed to “insulate the region against ideological interference from the great powers.” It failed to gain support.

The cable concludes with the assessment of an informant from the Department of Foreign Affairs (its deputy secretary) giving Whitlam’s position – “that Australia is beginning to feel itself alone in the world and wishes to show some initiative in forming new friendships based on mutual interests with other countries in the region.”

The concept of relations based on friendship and mutual interests and Whitlam’s assessment of countries that attempt to use political domination to maintain economic predominance must sound like heresy to the US administration and imperialism in general.

He was to pay a huge price for such heresy.

See Part 2: Economic crisis   

Next article – Acknowledge and recover the past – The Spanish Republic Movement

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