Arbib Keeps On Keeping On


"I, Mark Arbib, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors according to law. So help me God!" 

Except he wasn’t, was he? Faithful, that is, or true. Let’s go through this slowly to make sure we don’t miss anything. All members of the Senate and House of Representatives undertake to serve the Crown. Lest any confusion remain, representatives must swear a further affirmation to the same effect after taking the oath of allegiance.

He’d sworn allegiance twice but all along, the NSW Senator and Labor Right leader was secretly working for a foreign government. And, as Julia Gillard testily reminded Ali Moore on Lateline last week, "Australia and the United States are different countries".

Remarkably there has been very little follow-up to the Wikileaks revelations in Australia. No-one has asked Arbib if he was paid (and how much) to feed inside information on Labor politics and — through his position in the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet — the workings of government.

Arbib was later promoted to a ministerial portfolio in Gillard’s new cabinet. Coincidentally or not, the list of his public speaking engagements on the departmental website grinds to an abrupt halt after December 2010 when he was unmasked by the Wikileaks cables as a "protected source" for the US Embassy at Yarralumla. Perhaps he’s worried about having to field a straight question in front of a crowd.

Arbib spent his sessions at the American embassy giving briefings denigrating his boss Kevin Rudd, and talking up the merits of Gillard as a potential successor. The wish was father to the deed: Arbib was one of the prime movers in Rudd’s defenestration. And, coincidentally or not, important elements of Australia’s foreign policy have shifted in Washington’s favour since Gillard took over.

Canberra returned the fold as one of the pro-Israel group of nations at the UN General Assembly, and our new PM obligingly handed blank cheques to the Obama and any future Administration to park American military assets on Australian territory, and to lead us into future wars. All this before delivering the most obsequious statement by any Australian head of government since Harold Holt’s "all the way with LBJ".

Compare this with the impact of Wikileaks elsewhere.

According to "Sam", a Tunisian blogger, "Wikileaks revealed what everyone was whispering". The cables were a catalyst which helped the first domino in the Arab world to topple.

"President Ben Ali and his regime", the US Ambassador in Tunis had written in 2009, "have lost touch with the Tunisian people … They rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power". The cable was published in a Lebanese newspaper, setting Tunisia’s web-savvy youth on a game of cat and mouse with the censors in order to access the pages via internet proxies.

Presciently, the Ambassador continued: "Corruption in the inner circle is bitterly resented … Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia’s high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing".

Julian Assange, the Australian founder of Wikileaks, gave a television interview to Mark Davis on Dateline in which he was careful to attribute the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt to the courage and fortitude of the Arab peoples. But we can surely also appreciate the contribution of the Wikileaks revelations to the overthrow of Ben Ali’s corrupt regime and the subsequent waves of positive changes across the region.

In Kenya there was less surprise when the private remarks of US Ambassador Michael Ranneberger, describing the country’s bureaucracy as a "swamp of flourishing corruption", were disclosed as they bore a pretty strong resemblance to his pronouncements on the record.

Still, Wikileaks appears to have given a further prod to the twin processes of cleaning up government graft, and pressing ahead with indictments by the International Criminal Court for political leaders implicated in the post-election violence of 2008. Crucially, the media have been swift to join the dots. A typical example: a column in Kenya’s leading newspaper, the Daily Nation, observing that the Wikileaks disclosures would stiffen political resolve in the international community to rebuff appeals by President Mwai Kibaki to defer the ICC cases.

"Think of this push for the deferral in the context of WikiLeaks", Makau Mutua, Dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School, wrote in the paper recently. "WikiLeaks paints Mr Kibaki as a protector of impunity".

In both the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa, journalists picked up the cues offered by the Wikileaks disclosures, despite efforts by their own governments to blame the messenger. Tunisia tried censorship and the Kenyan authorities dismissed the reports as "malicious" and "innuendo". But the media response was such as to amplify the pressure for substantive political changes, not to dampen it.

In Australia, by contrast, disclosures such as the ones about Arbib have tended to sink into the viscous swamp of unreformed government-media relations, leaving barely a ripple. Political reporting seldom performs the basic journalistic function of questioning the Canberra narrative. Sure, there is the occasional televisual trompe-l’oeil, like Assange’s video question to Gillard on ABC Q and A on Monday, but there is no great appetite to follow up, to pursue.

It’s time to make our voices heard within the media and beyond it. What is really going on in government, and what judgements should we form about it? What changes should follow, and how can we bring them about? Wikileaks offers the opportunity to conduct such a conversation. Others have taken it — we should, too.

Sydney Peace Foundation, the City of Sydney, Amnesty International and Stop the War have organised a public event to pursue these questions. "Wikileaks and freedom: Breaking the Australian Silence" takes place at 6.30pm tonight at Sydney’s Town Hall, with author and journalist, John Pilger, whistleblower-turned-MP Andrew Wilkie and Julian Burnside QC.


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