Diplomatic cables an ‘unmined quartz lead’ for historians

Researcher Cam Coventry looked through diplomatic cables from the 1970s for his work.

In late 2018, media reports claiming the Russian government had interfered in the 2016 United States presidential campaign were increasing in frequency, with claims the Russian involvement was pivotal in damaging the campaign of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

The reporting piqued the interest of Federation University PhD candidate Cam Coventry who vaguely remembered news coverage from Australia five years earlier following a WikiLeaks release of a large batch of classified diplomatic cables. The connection for Mr Coventry was one country meddling in another’s affairs.

Reports from the WikiLeaks release included the claim that former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was a key informant to the US during the 1970s.

“I thought these older reports of interference in Australian politics seemed pertinent to the present debate about foreign interference – in the United States but also Australia,” Mr Coventry said.

“So I thought I would see if there was actually anything to it. I started looking around at what had been written about the cables, trying to ascertain if there was any truth to this.”

The cables Mr Coventry considered were declassified from 2004 for the period 1973-79. He accessed the cables through the National Archives and Records Administration (based in the United States), but they can also be accessed on WikiLeaks, which released a large body of US diplomatic cables, including classified cables covering 2003-10.

Some cables were marked top secret and others were marked for general circulation and had no classification. The cables that had the higher classification contained the more interesting information, Mr Coventry said.

“What the US diplomats were doing, and what they still do, is monitor Australian media for anything that could be of importance to the pursuit of their so-called national interest in Australia and the region. They're the low classification cables, just summarising what's in the media.

“Then you start to get into the higher classifications, and these involve people who are providing information that's not for public consumption, inside information. A great many names started coming up. It was a veritable who's who of Australian history for the 1970s and subsequent decades because there were student politicians in the 1970s who then went on to become quite serious players.” Cam Coventry

Mr Coventry said the focus of his study moved from broadly looking at the flow of information from Australia to the US to focus on Mr Hawke who featured prominently. The cables spanned from 1973 to 1979 when Mr Hawke was president of the ACTU and president of the Australian Labor Party.

“Probably the most damaging revelations are from 1974 in which Hawke says that the Whitlam government is done for and that he wants to abandon the Labor Party to form, essentially, a third party with the support of Rupert Murdoch and Sir Peter Abeles (of TNT) who was Hawke’s lifelong confidante,” Mr Coventry said.

“He was also providing information about the unions, information that would stifle union disputes that impact companies like Ford. These sorts of assurances and that sort of behaviour helped the United States keep things on an even keel.

“And then, he's persuading them – and they're very much taken by him – that he will be the future, he will be a big politician and that he promises to be very important over the next 20 years in Australian politics.”

Mr Coventry said the cables are an “as yet almost unmined quartz lead” for historians and allowed him to trawl through major episodes in political history to bring out nuggets of information that were not previously known.

His work on the subject The “Eloquence” of Robert J. Hawke: United States informer, 1973–79 was published in The Australian Journal of Politics and History and has this week made front page headlines in Australia and internationally. Within two weeks, it became the most-read article in the journal’s nearly 70-year history.

“What I have done is contextualise this information within existing scholarship and based the arguments on documented evidence,” Mr Coventry said.

“In order to determine whether or not the information they were getting was real, I have slotted the cables in among this existing work. And what you see is that the information that the United States was getting was remarkably accurate and helpful to the pursuit of American interests in Australia.”

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