In 1973, Australian workers at the joint Australian-U.S. low-frequency communications base at North West Cape in Western Australia were unhappy with their working conditions.
They were talking about a possible strike to resolve the issue.
Little did they know that their relatively minor industrial dispute was being talked about in the corridors of power in Australia and the U.S. The President of their national union organisation, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), was assuring officials from the U.S. State Department that he was surprised at the militancy of the workers, that he would intervene informally to pacify the workers.
Indeed, this information would never have come to light except for some forensic investigation by historian Cameron Coventry of recently declassified cables from U.S. diplomats in Australia to their State Department bosses.
The ACTU Secretary at the time was Bob Hawke. The cables also exposed how Bob Hawke was a regular and eager informer to the U.S. State Department on many issues and was eager to ensure that he could steer the main organisation of Australian workers, the ACTU, in line with the U.S. State Department.
This news has recently been highlighted in public discourse and the news that numbers of other Australian leaders were equally willing to both inform and gather intelligence for the U.S. State Department and do its bidding.
Of less impact has been the realisation of what these latest revelations imply for ongoing Australian Government policies.
A strong and enduring commitment to the U.S. alliance has been a policy of both Labor and Liberal Governments since the 1951 signing of the ANZUS Treaty, with regular Australia-U.S. Ministerial Meeting (AUSMIN) talks each year to cement the continuing contemporary aspects of that alliance.
This alliance has consumed a massive amount of taxpayers funds over the past 70 years. It has meant a continuous stream of young men and women giving up their lives, their livelihoods, and in many cases their mental health, to maintain that alliance, from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria.
The revelations also point to the costs and consequences that everyday workers face from that alliance.
U.S. diplomats were pleased with Hawke’s '...subtle dampening of wage demands'.
They were also pleased that he was able to:
'...mastermind erosion of popular anti-uranium policy by exploiting a break in union solidarity.'
From reading the account in these State Department cables, it is clear that U.S. officials wanted to weaken union strength and weaken union campaigns such as the widely supported campaign against uranium mining. Furthermore, they were able to carry out these aims by using such Australian leaders as Hawke during that turbulent period of the 1970s.
That experience in our recent past has been replicated many times over in current times.
Not only has there been covert manipulation of Australian politics by the United States. There have been ongoing wars in the Middle East since 1990: the first and second Gulf wars in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.
Over that whole period of thirty years, there has been relentless pressure on Australia to fit in with U.S. policy objectives and to commit Australian troops and equipment to these wars.
There has been a consistent bipartisan policy of both Labor and Liberal to support fully the military alliance with the U.S.
One of the significant selling points for this policy of abject compliance has been the number of jobs for Australians that will be generated by arms manufacturing in Australia; weapons that need to be “interoperable” with U.S. weapons systems.
In other words, weapons systems that fit neatly into the U.S. warfighting machine. A dramatic example is the hype around building submarines in Adelaide.
Yes, Australian workers need jobs and they need well paid and ongoing employment. Weapons manufacture in Australia will certainly fulfil this objective to some extent.
But it does not need to be this way.
There always have been real alternatives. Alternative employment that provides workers with well-paid, sustainable jobs making socially useful things: public housing, transport systems, alternative energy technology.
Workers want employment that means they are contributing to building a better world for our community.
Workers have a long tradition of standing up for a more peaceful world. Just think of the workers that opposed conscription in both the First World War and the Vietnam War.
Workers took a lead in opposing nuclear weapons and tests of these weapons. Workers in Scotland turned arms manufacturer Lucas Aerospace into a public transport manufacturer in the 1970s.
Today, the German trade union movement is taking a lead in pushing for the conversion of weapons manufacturing factories into socially useful manufacture.
The Vice President of the Federation of European Industrial Unions, Wolfgang Lemb, said in a 2019 speech to German workers:
“Metalworkers who still build weapons or other military equipment today would rather manufacture civil goods today than tomorrow. Every increase in arms procurement acts as an innovation killer and prevents the necessary diversification.”
Submissions can be made through the IPAN Inquiry website via the online form.
IPAN is a network of organisations around Australia aiming to build public dialogue and pressure for change to a truly independent foreign policy for Australia — one in which our government plays a positive role in solving international conflicts peacefully.
- Now or never: Australia must develop its own foreign policy
- A People's Inquiry: Australia must reconsider its relationship with the U.S.
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