I evidently touched a nerve with my article on the reversal of Australia’s modest efforts to signal a more even-handed approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict under the Labor government after 2007. Kevin Rudd had, I wrote, tried to open up a little daylight between Canberra and Washington, with a series of diplomatic gestures — to the consternation of some of the party’s influential friends.
The prime mover in Rudd’s defenestration, Mark Arbib, the NSW Senator and the Right’s numbers man, was later unmasked as a US intelligence asset. In conversations with his handlers at the American embassy — revealed by Wikileaks — he lauded the credentials of Julia Gillard to take over. Once Gillard replaced Rudd, Australia reverted to its previous position in the hard core of seven countries prepared to back Israel in votes at the UN.
The pattern of slavish obeisance by Canberra to the Washington line is a familiar one, of course, and according to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, it is being carried on behind the scenes in dealings over him and his website. Julia Gillard initially pronounced Wikileaks’ publication of diplomatic cables "an illegal act"; only to backtrack hastily as outrage among the legal profession and the public at large was crystallised by Opposition Legal Affairs spokesman George Brandis QC when he told Sky News, "As far as I can see, he (Assange) hasn’t broken any Australian law. Nor does it appear he has broken any American laws".
In spite of the government’s protestations since that it maintains a neutral position, Assange told Dateline’s Mark Davis that Gillard and Attorney-General Robert McClelland are only "pretending to be hands-off", because of the strong support for WikiLeaks expressed by the Australian public. "There is assistance to the US [in efforts to indict Assange and to extradite him]— and that needs to come out", he added.
But to some commentators, such conspiratorial views of the political process do not ring true.
Shortly after my article appeared on New Matilda, I received a message from a hotmail address for one Walter Slurry, author of Not The Costello Memoirs and occasional satirical correspondent for Crikey. Apologising for hiding behind a nom de plume, the writer described himself as "a Labor ‘insider’, one of the faceless men who helped topple Kevin Rudd".
He proceeded to sketch a devastating and familiar portrait of the esteem in which Rudd was held by his parliamentary colleagues at the time of his ouster couched in terms too strong for a family website.
Rudd was a "devious little [see-you-next-Tuesday]", my correspondent wrote. "We hated him. He’s not a true believer. He’s as Labor as Turnbull is a large ‘L’ Liberal. We would have lost the election with Rudd at the helm. He’d buggered up our agenda. We dumped him the moment the numbers swung our way". There was, in other words, no need for "conspiracy theories" to explain his fall. Slurry might very well dismiss Assange’s forebodings in similarly robust terms: we wait to find out.
Who ever Slurry is — he is a satirist but even if he has no real-life connection to the ALP or to the political class — his characterisation of Rudd’s downfall meshes with popular conception, and with many of the comments posted on my original story: that the vapidities and reflexive deference to powerful interests that appear to constitute federal Labor’s agenda under Gillard are attributable to a want of character or imagination in the party room.
This common perception reminds me, however, of one of HL Mencken’s aphorisms: "To every complex problem there is a simple solution. And it is wrong". Professional political operators may have as little inclination to conceptualise the conduct and content of their endeavours as most journalists do. What appear to be "a few home truths" about conspiracies might lead a ministerial adviser to regard everyday pressures and constraints as simply the way it is — or a reporter to believe they are "just reporting the facts".
Academics are inclined — for better or worse — to enquire more deeply, in our quest to understand, or even explain the climate of expectations and frames of reference within which individuals, their words, deeds and policies are appraised.
It’s a motif that runs through the most influential social science research of recent decades. Philip Zimbardo showed, in the infamous Stanford Prisoner Experiment, how apparently mild-mannered students could be transformed overnight into sadistic guards. His conclusion? We are all too inclined to attribute our responses to our disposition — the way we are — when we should attach much more importance, in understanding why people behave as they do, to the exigencies of the situation in which they find themselves. That is, we are well advised to look beyond the home truths.
French philosopher Michel Foucault mused that power is a name we give to "the complex strategic situation in society". There is such a thing as "the local cynicism of power" — it takes a Mark Arbib to plunge the knife into a Kevin Rudd. However, we should not look, Foucault said, for "the headquarters that presides over its rationality". Agency — things people do to bring about change, like sacking a prime minister — is not individual but decentred and dispersed. Plots become identifiable only when they crystallise a shift that is already underway more generally.
Perhaps it was when Rudd put himself offside with powerful networks, like the pro-Israel lobby and the mining industry — while simultaneously alienating portions of his support over asylum and climate change — that ALP insiders felt the flow of opinion turning decisively against him. He led the Opposition by projecting the public persona of a reassuring bank manager; but of course, shortly after he took office, bank managers became considerably less reassuring figures, with revelations of their recklessness that led to the GFC. Perhaps his underlings "just" got sick of him. Perhaps the diplomatic dividend, for Israel, of his replacement by his deputy, is entirely coincidental.
But the "home truths" view of political process has lost credibility in the age of Wikileaks. Hillary Clinton really was — we now know — seeking to manipulate deliberations at the UN by getting US diplomats to spy on their colleagues. The Pentagon — an earlier leak revealed — really was drawing up propaganda strategies to enable governments to bamboozle public opinion while keeping troops in Afghanistan. Wheels turn within wheels, and sectional interests grind away in the dark.
Assange’s Dateline interview presages further disclosures — with a warning that more material implicating the Australian Government is on its way and that it involves a number of large companies and international politics. The shadows are receding fast.
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