Yes, Virginia, there are conspiracies

McQueenHumphrey McQueen speech at Canberra Friends of Wikileaks, Coombs Lecture Theatre, Australian National University, 27 June 2012.

Once more, I have the honour of sharing a platform with Christine Assange. Since we were at the Sydney meeting in February, she has come through five tortuous months. Her calm yet loving commitment to keeping us up to date with the legal and extra-judicial proceedings inspires us all. In her situation, I would be tempted to seek a silent refuge to lick my wounds.

Her concern for her son is buttressed by her sharing his determination to get the story out there. We can say the same for the willingness of David Hicks to carry forward the struggle that his father, Terry, pursued for him, another act of love which fired the campaigns that cornered Howard into cutting a deal for David’s return. In this connection, let us not forget how Mandoub Habib refuses to be silent about betrayal by his government and torture at the hands of its partners in crime. The official mendacity surrounding their experiences is one reason why we are here tonight.

We know how much we need Wikileaks at a time when billionaires treat  newspapers as chips in their game of monopolising everything in sight. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that ‘money is speech’, they demonstrated why speech will never be free for as long as it is a business.

A backwash from the Sydney meeting gave me the clue for what to say this time. Back in Canberra a couple of weeks later, I was at a friend’s farewell party where I was introduced to a senior official in Federal ALP machine, someone from the party’s remnant Left, and so not Senator Ahbib. In the way that strangers do, we asked each other what we had been doing lately.

I saw a chance to get in a spot of propaganda on Julian’s behalf and so talked about the roaring success of the Sydney meeting, about how many people had had to be turned away because, even after the organisers had infringed all the fire regulations by packing the aisles, there was no room. I was hoping to alert one cog in the ALP machine to how much outrage exists at the government’s complicity in the assault on Wikileaks and its founder.

Hope springs eternal. I need not have bothered. Instead of taking note of the strength of feeling represented by that meeting, the Dalek had his response down pat: ‘Those people are all conspiracy theorists.’ Now it was my turn: ‘You mean we believe that Dick Pratt conspired to fix prices?’ No, that was not what the ALP Left thought of as a conspiracy. He turned to find someone more congenial.

So, let us take some time to think about conspiracies. The subject is of immediate significance for Wikileaks because its revelations have provided researchers with plenty of dots to join up to explain why governments and corporations behave as they have. A Congolese refugee in Sydney voiced his gratitude for details about how twelve millions have been murdered there for mining profits since 1960. In addition, there are the concerns that the governments of Australia, Sweden and the US of A are conspiring to deliver Julian Assange into the hands of US prosecutors.

The first problem we encounter in using the term ‘conspiracy’ is the ignorant cynicism that passes for wisdom among many journalists. No sooner does a researcher join up two dots than the interviewer snaps back ‘But that’s just a conspiracy theory’. Well, not necessarily. It might be a conspiracy fact.

Hence, we need to be clear about what’s in and what’s out when we point to conspiracies. If you want to tell me that the world has been run for centuries by the Knights Templar, by Jewish bankers, by the Vatican, the Illuminati or the Freemasons, my response is that of the ALP official. I turn away. Life is too short. There is not and never has been a conspiracy of that scale. The principal effect of claims about over-arching conspiracies is to discredit the evidence for conspiracies in the particular.

The denial of conspiracies is linked to the destruction of historical memory and to the erasure of short-term political responsibility. The response of public figures caught lying, or with their hands in the till is to bleat: ‘That’s ancient history’, ‘We’re moving on’, or ‘We’re putting that behind us’. This spin seeks to sever effect from cause. Here is a variant of the blame game in which no one is to blame because every liar and thief is instantaneously born again. If the past is a blank slate, why bother to find out who made any decision or how it was executed? Anyone who wants to find out must be a deluded conspiracy theorist.

Are there conspiracies?

The answer depends on what you means by conspiracy.

First, what does the word mean? ‘To conspire’ derives from ‘con’ and ‘spire’, [Latin, spirare] meaning to breath/ whisper together. In itself, conspire is a neutral term though one that has acquired sinister connotations.

The substantial meaning of conspiracy is not to be found in dictionaries but through examining the operation of social power. (see Robert Spicer, Conspiracy: law, class and society, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1981)What the authorities do is ‘law and order’, ‘national security’ and ‘good governance’. What we do against them is conspiracy. What corporations do against us is organisation and method carried out by Masters of Business Administration.

Ask yourself: can anything happen with people ‘breathing together’? Take this meeting. Those of us who had a hand in making it happen would say that we organised it. Some of our critics might accuse us of conspiring to support terrorism. What is certain is that none of us would be here now without lots of emails, phone calls, tweets and postering.

Equally certain is that 300 people did not wake up this morning and think it was time to do something about Wikileaks and then decide that they might go along to the Coombs by 7 pm to see if anyone else had had the same thought. The idea did not come to us in a dream. That much is obvious. There is a conclusion to be drawn from this everyday experience.

If an event as small as this meeting required twenty or more people ‘breathing together’, what chance is that that any government could do without breathing together with the force of a cyclone? How likely is it that financial institutions spontaneously cut off Wikileaks? I reckon it is about as likely as their executives deciding to do so after a visit from the Archangel Gabriel.

Journalists scorn the very existence of conspiracies in favour of everything being the product of stuff-ups. Lawmakers, on the other hand, are in no doubt that ‘conspiracies’ are ubiquitous.  The police charge petty thieves with conspiring just as often as they throw in ‘resisting arrest’. Bradley Manning is to be charged with conspiring with ‘person or persons unknown’. Will one of those known unknowns will turn out to be Julian Assange?

The current law against conspiracy is a hangover from the anti-terrorism campaigns of the 1790s. They have been given a new lease of repression under the Patriot Act and their equivalents around the world. The criminal charge of ‘conspiracy’ is dangerous law which Reform Commissions have wanted to remove it. (Peter Gillies, Law of criminal conspiracy, Federation Press, Sydney, 1990) Calls for its abolition should be part of the Wikileaks campaign.

Lecturing on jurisprudence, Adam Smith told his Edinburgh students in the 1750s that:

‘Laws and government may be considered in …. every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor, and preserve to themselves the inequality of the goods’.

‘Combination’ is another word for ‘conspiracy’. A perfect example of Smith’s insight came with the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834, when six agricultural labourers were transported from Dorset to the penal colonies of Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales. They had banded together to resist a reduction in their wages from nine to six shillings a week.

That resistance was why they were persecuted but not on grounds on which they were arrested and convicted. They could not be charged with an illegal combination since trade unions had been legalised ten years earlier. This is like Australia today. It is legal to form a union but illegal to do almost anything once you have. Nor were they done merely for taking an illegal oath. In a typical twist, the law officers got the labourers for swearing to conceal the fact that they had taken that oath. In other words, for conspiring. As the Law Magazine pointed out at the time:

It is not with administering an oath not required or authorised by law, that the Dorsetshire Labourers stood charged …. But with administering an oath not to reveal a combination which administers such oaths.

The case of the Tolpuddle martyrs shows how the law against conspiracy is used to achieve political and economic ends. Of relevance to Wikileaks is the reminder of how in ferreting out offences, prosecutors perpetrate Injustice within the law, as Doc Evatt titled his 192 booklet on the Martyrs.

Local instances

This is not the occasion to detail any particular conspiracy. Nonetheless, I shall point to some thoroughly documented examples. One is from the world of the Australian politics and several from business.

If I suggest that there was a conspiracy to replace an Australian prime minister, I hope you won’t think I am thinking about the run up to the 2010 election. Far from it. I am talking about how the deputy Labor prime minister, Joe Lyons, was moved into the leadership of a new anti-Labor coalition in 1931. That switch was arranged by six Melburnians who styled themselves ‘the Group’.

The conspirators were a Victorian back-bench MLA, R.G. Menzies; Staniforth Ricketson from the leading firm of stock-brokers, J. B. Were & Son; Sir John Higgins from the Wool Realisation Association; Ambrose Pratt, a journalist; an architect Kingsley Henderson; and the general-manager of National Mutual Life Association. 

What ‘the Group’ had in common, apart from their political outlook, were connections into the big end of town. Two contacts were crucial. The first was the chair of the National Union, (Sir) Robert Knox, which held the purse strings of the non-Labour parties between the wars; Knox was on multiple company boards and chaired the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce. The other was Keith Murdoch, managing-director of the Herald and Weekly Times newspapers, from Perth around to Brisbane. This conspiracy is documented in an ANU doctoral thesis by the conservative scholar Philip Hart. (For a short account see Hart’s article in Labour History, November 1969, number 17).

By their nature, conspiracies that replace a prime ministers can happen only every few years. By contrast, conspiracies among business people go on every hour of every day. In the Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith, warned:

‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.’

This history of Australian capitalism reads like a vast footnote to Smith’s remark. After a NSW Royal Commission found in 1911 that contractors had been ripping off the tax-payer, the Master Builders Association justified its members’ taking illegal commissions by pointing out that kick-backs were ‘universal and worldwide’. Eighty years later, the CEO of Leightons, Wal King, defended his company’s use of false invoices to conceal price-fixing as ‘the culture … and custom that had been long-standing in the industry that had been handed on for years.’ The 1991-2 NSW Royal Commission into the State’s construction sector led to mass resignation in the State’s MBA  Executive which had been a clearing house for collusive tenders. A few weeks ago Lend Lease defended its price fixing in the US over nine years by repeating that ‘everyone always does it’.

Repeat offenders dominate the international air freight with one QANTAS executive gaoled in the United States and the company fined $ 12m. in October 2010.

Vendetta

Anyone who doubts the existence of conspiracies should read about the smearing of banker Edmond Safra by American Express is retold in Vendetta (1992) by Bryan Burrough, who had co-authored Barbarians at the Gate on the takeover and trashing of Nabisco.

The proof that Amex engaged in this conspiracy came with the $8 million that the firm paid to four charities nominated by Safra. Amex executives had conspired against him because they feared that he was conspiring against them. In other words, they were drawing on their intimate knowledge of corporate behaviour to take what they wrongly, in this case, thought of as a preemptive strike.

The smear was that Safra laundered drug money, a story which was easy to run because there is so much  evidence of such behaviour by so many of the world’s biggest financial institutions. Think Iran-Contra. Secondly, Amex used legal threats and smears to block exposure in the Wall Street Journal. The paper withstood those pressures. Would it do so now that it is owned by Mass Murdoch? That question mark is one more reason why we need Wikileaks.

The story of the Tolpuddle martyrs did not end in 1834 with their transportation. In less than two years, their supporters had forced the government to grant them ‘free pardons’. That victory came out a campaign through the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union.

A comparable campaign in Australia ensured that David Hicks could be with us this evening and not in Guantanamo. Tonight, we are at the start of a movement to do for Julian and for Wikileaks what British radicals did in the 1830s for the labour movement. How should we to proceed?

Other speakers will outline tactical actions. Let me spell out the strategic lesson from my comments about conspiracy facts. In the battles that we shall face, governments will continue to conspire, they will deploy anti-conspiracy laws and push their black propaganda.

We can’t beat them at their game. We will win by following the example of the unionists in the 1830s by mounting the broadest campaign to organise, to educate and to agitate. Our success will come from the open conspiracy of mass participation that inspired Julian Assange to set up Wikileaks, land that brought us here tonight .

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