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Seven days after the Bali bombings Australian voters history gave a jump in Australia. Michael Organ, became the first The green candidate to win a seat in the Australian House of Representatives. Indeed, it was the first victory for a minority party in the House of Representatives since WW2. (There are currently two national Greens Senators in Australia.)
The venue for this triumph was a by-election in the “Cunningham” electorate, in the Wollongong area, a town 90 minutes south of Sydney, a surfing, seaside town, known as “The Gong”. It has one university, and the area is famous for hosting the BHP steel works at nearby Port Kembla.
It’s traditionally a working class area, where many post World War 2 southern European migrants chose to settle, with jobs at the steelworks. Many men, migrants and Aussies, brought up their families from the wages earned at BHP. Now it’s attracting families who can’t afford Sydney’s high housing prices, who settle for an average (not low) mortgage, by the sea, where parents often commute by train or car to Sydney, twice a day, to pay off these 30 year long mortgages. I have a friend who bought a house near Wollongong, a year ago. It was the cheapest house on the market. She bought it with the bank for $195,000 and says that in the past year, prices have risen so much that young families like hers’ can no longer afford a modest home there.
The multicultural community of Wollongong is opposed to Australian involvement in a US-led war against Iraq, also to the locking up of refugees (a third of whom are children), in detention centers in the desert, as is currently Australian government practice.
The conservative Australian government declined to put up a candidate in the by-election. They knew they couldn’t win. Since 1949, it’s been Labor (like US Democrat) all the way. But this time it looked, by preferences, to be a Green or union-backed Independent victory. In the event, the Greens won by trading preferences with Peter Wilson, the independent, left wing, union-backed candidate.
On October 17, in the Australian senate, Greens leader Bob Brown expressed concern about unprecedented US interference in this steel town by-election. Following is his question to the senate, and the reply by the Minister of Defense, Senator Hill:
Senator BROWN: “My question without notice is to Senator Hill, Minister representing the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I refer to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states that while countries may have their diplomats gather information in other countries, they also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.
“Did the US Embassy or anyone from the Bush administration contact the government before their representatives went to Wollongong to question candidates in the Cunningham by-election about issues such as the impending war in Iraq? Did the government respond? Is this not a breach of that Vienna convention? Does the government recollect any similar incursions into Australian domestic affairs in the past?
“Senator HILL ?”I notice that Susan Crystal, the Counselor for Public Affairs for the US Embassy, has put out a statement on this matter. I think it confirmed that the US Embassy was sending three officials to Wollongong to talk to candidates and others to gauge public sentiment. She said that the visit is part of `routinely sending back information to the United States about the feeling of the electorate on particular issues’. She is quoted as saying, `As you may be aware, many embassies, certainly the American embassy, I would guess many embassies, many countries around the world routinely send back information to our host governments, in this case the United States, about various things that are going on in the country in which we are serving.’ On that basis there does not seem to be any issue of interference and, therefore, the Vienna convention is not relevant. Was the Australian government contacted about the matter? I do not know but I would not have thought so.”
“Senator BROWN: Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Does the government not see that this is a clear breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations? While I will be very happy to meet these representatives with Greens candidate Michael Organ tomorrow in Wollongong, I ask again, Minister: has this ever occurred in Australian history and has there ever been an occasion where an Australian diplomat has gone to question candidates for election in the United States about domestic affairs or indeed foreign affairs in that country?
“Senator Kemp interjecting-
“The PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Kemp, come to order.
“Senator HILL: I am not sure they would learn much from a Greens candidate.
“Senator CARR: Tell us who the Liberal candidate is.
“Senator HILL: If I were a member of the Labor Party, I would worry about how the Labor Party is going to go.
“Senator Sherry: You can’t even field a candidate!
“The PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Nick Sherry and Senator Carr, come to order, please.
“Senator HILL: I do not think there is any evidence of interference, as I said. This is a free country. If they ask to interview a candidate they can do so, and whether the candidate wishes to respond is up to the candidate.”
The US embassy in Canberra confirmed that they were planning to meet election campaign managers to discuss election issues. Bob Brown believes that the US was planning to influence the candidates, and probably the election. This happened in the week following the October 12 Bali Bombings- when the media was saturated with parallels to September 11 , and issues like US interference in our “democracy” got little attention, or would be considered unpatriotic to Australia and to Uncle Sam.
When I called the Greens leader’s office to ask abut articles covering his parliamentary question, to add to the one article I’d found, by chance, online, they couldn’t find any media coverage, and emailed a transcript of the senate questions. Surprise, surprise, the Australian Minister of Defense, Robert Hill, has no concern about political interference by the US embassy in the upcoming by-election. After all, it’s his party which is in power and has supported the US all the way to Afghanistan, and continuing for Iraq, and wherever else it goes. Straight after September 11, our Prime Minister offered Bush our full support. We, in Australia, in our desert near Alice Springs, host the ubiquitous, CIA-operated Pine Gap. The Macquarie Dictionary describes Pine Gap as “a joint US-Australian defence space research facility near Alice Springs in the NT, operated by the CIA”. It is a place which Australians know very little about, and are not permitted to know much about. Pine Gap is believed to be used to spy on much of the Middle East and was used in the Gulf War. It’s an essential part of US intelligence gathering. Thus, perhaps, their need to interfere so much in our “democratic” voting process.
Green and union backed independents bode a dangerous national precedent which might slowly topple the existing Howard Coalition (conservative/US aligned) government. It could create a very independent parliament, one that wouldn’t easily back wars and submissive trade agreements, plus CIA operated research stations in our backyard.