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Broadcast: 09/12/2010

Reporter: Heather Ewart

In US embassy cables obtained by WikiLeaks, Senator Mark Arbib is reported as having discussed with
the Americans, leadership tensions between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard well before the former
Prime Minister was ousted in June.

Transcript

KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: The WikiLeaks saga continues to dominate, globally and in Australia.

The Government here moved today to play down the impact of the latest series of WikiLeaks
disclosures, as detailed in Fairfax newspapers, exposing right-wing powerbroker and minister
senator Mark Arbib as a regular confidential contact of the US embassy in Canberra.

In embassy cables obtained by WikiLeaks, senator Arbib is reported as having discussed with the
Americans leadership tensions between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard well before the former prime
minister was ousted in June.

Past and present politicians and diplomats are seeking to hose this down as the normal business of
diplomacy, but it's also sparked a debate on whether there's been too much subservience towards the
US.

Political editor Heather Ewart.

HEATHER EWART, REPORTER: As the WikiLeak disclosures pour in thick and fast, leading to one
titillating newspaper headline after another, senator Mark Arbib is the latest to be outed as one
featured regularly in US embassy dispatches to Washington. There's nervousness in political ranks
of all persuasions about who might be next.

HUGH WHITE, LOWY INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL POLICY: I would be very surprised if the US embassy in
Canberra didn't have as frank a conversation with a very wide range of Coalition parliamentarians
and leaders as they do with the Labor side. And so I think a lot of people will be very reluctant
to throw too many aspersions on Arbib and others precisely because they themselves or their
colleagues will be in the same boat. And they must all be opening the paper with some trepidation
every morning to see whose name's up next.

STEPHEN LOOSLEY, FMR STATE LABOR SENATOR: I think in an immediate sense it'll probably have a
chilling impact in terms of people speaking very frankly. This will happen for a while and I think
that's been damaging.

HEATHER EWART: All the Australian public sees in terms of that relationship is television images
like this during Hillary Clinton's recent visit here. What comes as a shock to some is that much
more has been going on behind the scenes for years, including politicians dobbing on their own
colleagues to the US embassy. But in political and diplomatic circles, this is apparently
considered a perfectly normal state of affairs.

WAYNE SWAN, TREASURER: I think we oughta just understand one point, that in diplomacy every day, in
diplomacy every month, in diplomacy every year there are literally thousands, tens of thousands of
conversations that take place.

NICOLA ROXON, HEALTH MINISTER: It's part of the work that we do and I don't think people should
read anything at all sinister into that.

ALEXANDER DOWNER, FORMER FOREIGN MINISTER: In general terms you would expect the American embassy
and other key embassies - perhaps not all embassies, but other key embassies to cultivate relations
with members of Parliament. So there's nothing unusual about that. They no doubt have cultivated a
relationship with Mark Arbib. He's believed to be sympathetic to America and the American alliance.

HUGH WHITE: I hope that Australian diplomats in Washington are doing the exact same to the US
political system.

HEATHER EWART: But while Senator Arbib's NSW Labor colleagues have rushed to defend him, there are
question marks over whether he's been a little too zealous in passing on information to the
Americans, such as forecasting a leadership challenge.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: It reads to me as though he has become quite a good friend of one of the officers
in the embassy. I suppose that would be my take on it. So what he says is pretty frank stuff. I,
you know, would have to say that when you're chatting away with foreign diplomats, you do want to
exercise a degree of discretion.

STEPHEN LOOSLEY: The reason that Australia has such a close relationship with the Americans is that
we work the patch consistently and constantly.

HEATHER EWART: And if this extends to briefings on leadership tensions and upcoming coups, that's
apparently all fair game and follows the pattern of previous political eras.

STEPHEN LOOSLEY: For example, for example, in 1991 the United States embassy in Canberra, which was
very close to Prime Minister Hawke, was telling the White House Prime Minister Hawke would be the
person to greet President Bush when he arrived in Canberra. The NSW ALP had a different view and
informed the consulate in Sydney, when asked, the likelihood was that Paul Keating would be the
Prime Minister. And so it proved to be. Prime Minister Keating greeted President Bush when he
arrived.

HEATHER EWART: As for Senator Arbib's role in more recent leadership developments and briefings, he
issued a short statement today saying he was known as a strong supporter of Australia's
relationship with the US and was an active member of the American-Australian Leadership Dialogue.
This is a group of Australian and US politicians, business leaders and journalists which meets
annually to privately canvas the affairs of both nations.

HUGH WHITE: It does show that the leadership dialogue is a very effective institution in pulling
together a lot of fairly significant players in the Australian political landscape to talk to their
American counterparts. The trouble is it does also reflect the fact that the leadership dialogue
itself is rather an exercise in mutual self-congratulation.

STEPHEN LOOSLEY: Now this a position a lot of America's other allies would like to occupy, and over
the years a lot of other countries have come privately to people engaged in the dialogue and said,
"Now, how do we have a relationship with the Americans like you have?" Well the answer is you have
to work it at for half a century.

HEATHER EWART: What concerns some seasoned observers is that these latest leaks reveal a
relationship that could be interpreted as being a little too close and one that fails to adequately
address relations with China, for example.

HUGH WHITE: I don't think there's anything inherently improper about it. I guess what's striking
about it though is how hard people in the Labor Party, people in Australian politics in general,
work at being liked by the Americans, and there's nothing wrong with being liked by the Americans,
but what strikes me about what we've seen in the WikiLeaks saga so far is so little evidence of us
asking for something back, so little evidence of us trying to really have a serious conversation
with Americans about what's important to us.

HEATHER EWART: What's all too plain, no matter how those involved paint this, is that the leaks are
very uncomfortable for Australia and the US.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: It's embarrassing for both. It's of course literally embarrassing for Mark Arbib
or Kevin Rudd and no doubt there'll be plenty more people'll be embarrassed over the next few weeks
and months, not just in Australia but around the world.

HEATHER EWART: There are more damaging headlines expected in Fairfax newspapers tomorrow.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Political editor Heather Ewart.