The public forum “Breaking Australia's silence: WikiLeaks and freedom” took place on March 16 at Sydney Town Hall. More than 2000 people attended. The event was staged by the Sydney Peace Foundation, Amnesty, Stop the War Coalition, and supported by the City of Sydney
It featured speeches by John Pilger, Andrew Wilkie MP (the only serving Western intelligence officer to expose the truth about the Iraq invasion) and human rights lawyer Julian Burnside QC.
Wilkie’s address to the forum is below. The video recording of the event also appears below.
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Thank you, and I’ve got to say it’s very nice to see so many familiar faces here from the campaign against John Howard in Bennelong [in 2004].
Late last year, it was widely reported that I singled out Prime Minister Julia Gillard. I criticised her for showing contempt for the rule of law, showing contempt for the presumption of innocence and showing contempt for the right to free speech over her response to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
Now I’m in a position these days when it seems that whenever I open my mouth there’s no shortage of critics who take me on and try to pull me down.
But one of the things that struck me when I spoke out against the prime minister late last year was the extraordinary level of support and overwhelmingly positive response I got to my criticism of the prime minister.
It seems that people from right around Australia, from all sorts of political backgrounds, all sorts of ages, incomes — right around the country they got in touch with my office with emails, letters and phone calls and so on and said, “Good on you, good on you for saying that about the prime minister’ because it reflected their point of view.
And that’s very telling. Unlike so many other issues I’m involved in, there wasn’t a polarising down the middle of the Australian community.
That’s not to say that everyone is happy with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. I for one wouldn’t do it exactly the same way Julian Assange does it with WikiLeaks.
And very serious accusations against Julian Assange have been made at the moment and there are many Australians who think those accusations should be tested in the court of law.
But putting aside those reservations by some Australians, there is clearly an overwhelming number of Australians who are very concerned that this government and this prime minister have in fact shown a contempt for the rule of law, accusing Julian Assange of breaking laws that don’t even exist and having to retract the accusation under the weight of overwhelming public concern.
There is a large number of Australians who are very concerned about the way [the government] showed contempt for the presumption of innocence. And remember, presumption of innocence is not a luxury, it is a fundamental human right.
And it is unacceptable that anyone, and particularly unacceptable that the government of our country, should show such contempt for the presumption of innocence.
But I think there is much more too it. I think there are a lot of other forces at work in the national concern with what is happening to Julian Assange and the resentment that is thrown at WikiLeaks.
For example, there is the concern about what is happening to our world wide web. This government has shown a determination for some time now to censor the internet.
And although it has backed off a little bit in recent times and has thrown the matter back at the states and territories and said, ‘provide us with some advice on this,’ it is abundantly clear that the Gillard government is determined in due course to impose mandatory filtering of the internet.
Now I think that is wrong. It is inconsistent with the nature of the internet. And its probably technically impossible.
And what we are seeing here with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks is another attempt to censor the internet, which will be to deny it its great strength.
There is also a concern in the Australian community — its almost been burned into our consciousness — about the way a succession of Australian governments have been prepared to treat Australian citizens.
John [Pilger] has already spoken about what happened to Mamdouh Habib. And regardless of what you may think of him, and what he may or may not have done, the fact that he has now been paid — presumably a substantial compensation that must be keep secret from us — is all the proof we need that that man was treated wrongly and that Australian governments were party to that mistreatment.
No wonder we are sitting and standing here tonight, worried about the treatment being meted out to Julian Assange, when we have example like Habib as our benchmarks.
And I’m delighted that we have David Hicks here tonight. Regardless of what you think of David, and what he might or might not have done in his past, there is no denying, no Australian could deny, that he was seriously mistreated. [He was] fed into a grinder that has no similarity to any sort of decent justice any of us would be familiar with.
It was [federal attorney general] Robert McClelland, no less, who expressed concern about the treatment being meted out to David Hicks. But it turns out the government now is more concerned about the profits of crime, and whether or not [Hicks] may have made any profit from his book.
There seems to be no interest whatsoever in conducting a full and proper inquiry, not into David Hicks, but into the system that treated him the it did and into the government that allowed it to happen.
I am very [to say] that I will certainly put my signature to a letter to the prime minister demanding that there be a full and proper inquiry into what happened to [Hicks] so that it never happens again.
Julian Assange is going through, I suppose we want to call it, the whistleblower grinder.
He is certainly not the first person. I had my own experience back in 2003. And my experience is that when you do stand up and try to speak truth to power it is tough.
It is very, very tough culturally in this country, where you are seen to be — I don’t know — upsetting the status quo, causing waves: that’s not the way we do it in Australia. We respect authority in Australia.
We don’t cause problems and we certainly don’t challenge governments or call prime ministers liars — as in fact John Howard was back in 2003.
For my efforts, you were told that I was mad. That I’d never worked in Iraq. That I didn’t know what I was talking about. That I wasn’t worth listening to.
But my story has a very, very happy ending. And I’m very, very proud to now sit on the cross benches in the House of Representatives.
But what about Alan Kessing? The man who in 2005 was found guilty of a charge he has denied every day since then of leaking documents to The Australian newspaper about security shortfalls at Sydney airport.
Alan Kessing is a man who now carries a guilty conviction. He’s broke. He lives in a shack in the Blue Mountains. And still the government refuses to pardon him despite the overwhelming evidence that there was a serious miscarriage of justice. And all he was trying to do was to speak up in the public interest and in return the government saw him guilty.
So what is going on ladies and gentlemen? Why is it that we live in a country where people like Alan Kessing, David Hicks and others can be treated the way they are being [treated]?
Well I suppose the government is reflecting in some ways the cultural mood in this country. As I said a moment ago, it is a tough country [in which] to speak up.
A lot of Australians don’t like whistleblowers. It’s a dirty word.
You compare that with places like the United States: to be called a whistleblower is in fact a great complement.
But to be called a whistleblower in Australia — and Assange is a whistleblower — it’s a dirty word, with all sorts of connotations.
But the way to overcome that is for governments and politicians to act like leaders and try to overcome those faultlines through the community. Instead, they seek to tap into it.
That’s exactly what the prime minister was doing [in] particular late last year, and other members of the government, when they were trying to single out Julian Assange and WikiLeaks as troublemakers — people who are breaking the law, who are guilty.
They are trying to tap into that sentiment in the Australian community when in fact what they should be doing is acting like leaders, and taking a neutral role, and if anything speaking up for people who try to speak truth to power.
The bottom line for me is that this government, and the government before it, and the government before that — that’s the Gillard government, the Rudd government and the Howard government — they are hypocrites.
Because they talk a lot about freedom of speech. They talk a lot about our fundamental human rights. They talk about the strength of our justice system. They jump though hoops, but at the end of the day do not want people to speak up.
Now it’s worth noting that in the last six months, through the parliament, had just recently passed what are frequently called “shield laws”. It’s a first in Australia. It will provide protection for journalists who publicise information from whistleblowers, which could possibly apply to Julian Assange.
But did the Gillard government do that because they wanted shield laws in Australia? No, they did it because the crossbenchers demanded it and they found themselves having to do it.
In other words, they were not prepared to do it until it was in their political self-interest to have a shield law in this country, and that’s not acceptable.
What about whistleblower legislation? For decades, various political parties — it probably started with the Democrats in the 1980s — have tried to get whistleblower legislation up in this country.
And yes, the Rudd government made the first cautious steps. But in essence the only reason there will be whistleblower legislation established for sure in the term of this parliament is because the crossbenchers and the Greens have demanded it.
In other words, it is only happening because it is in the political self-interest of the government, and not because the government has a deep and genuine desire for effective whistleblower protection in this country.
And lets not forget, we’ve just about got shield laws and I think in two and a half years time we will have whistleblower legislation. But that will stand in stark contrast to the hundreds of laws in this country which are there are deterrents and as punishments for people who do speak up.
Everytime I’ve stood up in the past eight years and said anything about my time in the Office of National Assessments I have been, arguably, liable for up to two years jail under the crimes act.
Because, remarkably in Australia to this day, if a federal public servant has been warned of anything, he or she has learned in the course of their employment in the federal public service [that] its two years jail.
And very interestingly, it’s seven years jail for the media that might publicise it.
So what are the solutions? There are lots of solutions. For a start, governments must understand that the rule of law, the presumption of innocence and the right to free speech means something.
[They are] our fundamental rights. And it’s a fundamental role of government to protect those rights.
They must move quickly to put in place effective legislation to protect those who speak up. And they should certainly move quickly to honour the agreement with me and the other politicians to have whistleblower legislation in place before the next election in two and a half years time.
And government must stop kowtowing to the United States because they think our bilateral relationship is more valuable than the rights and interests of Australian citizens. Now that is exactly what is happening with Julian Assange.
And they must stop tapping into the faultlines of our community. Even if they thought it was going to be popular to be going after Assange, it doesn’t make it right to say the things they said.
That’s not the only faultline I’ll add. Some of you will be aware that I’ve spoken out recently about the racism that’s eating at the Liberal party. And even though there has been a debate about this for weeks now, Tony Abbott is yet to effectively discipline Scott Morrison and Cory Bernardi for their racist sentiments.
And finally, all of us and the four of us up here, and everyone one of you down there, we have to continue to fight for freedom speech, for the rule of law, the presumption of innocence in this country.
If we back off one bit, they will continue to act the way they want to act and that’s not good enough.