After having had a few lunches with then opposition leader Anthony Albanese, John Shipton felt reason to be confident. Albanese had promised Assange’s father that he would do whatever he could, should he win office, to bring the matter to a close.
Albanese had also referred to Assange before a gathering at the Chifley Research Centre in December 2019: “You don’t prosecute journalists for doing their job.”
He said last December that the “ongoing pursuit of Mr Assange” served no evident “purpose” — “enough is enough”.
That said, prior to winning office, Labor hardly made disruptive ripples on the subject. “As an Australian, he is entitled to consular assistance,” came the anaemic remark from then opposition spokesperson for foreign affairs Senator Penny Wong in April.
“We also expect the government to keep seeking assurances from both the UK and US that he’s treated fairly and humanely … Consular matters are regularly raised with counterparts, they are regularly raised and this one would be no different.”
The problem with these assurances is that they have no weight or bearing in law and can be ignored. Power lies and absolute power lies absolutely.
Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales Ian Burnett and Lord Justice Timothy Holroyde ignored this crucial point in their decision last December to allow Assange’s extradition.
In reversing the lower court decision, they thought little of questioning Washington’s guarantees that Assange would not spend time in the ADX Florence supermax prison, or face special administrative measures were he to be extradited. These might have been made at the initial trial, but the prosecutors changed their tune on appeal.
There are Labor MPs in the new government who insist that Assange be freed. MP Julian Hill is convinced that the new Prime Minister would be a “man of integrity” and be true to his “values”.
He said there are members “who have had an active involvement in the Assange group based on these critical principles — press freedom and fighting against the chilling effect on the media that this persecution would have — and would hope that our government could achieve an outcome”.
Voices outside politics have also urged the new government to make urgent representations to Washington to change the prosecutorial and persecuting tone against Assange.
Guy Rundle insisted on “some form of official representation” to the US to end extradition efforts which would see Assange charged under the Espionage Act of 1917. “It should also make representation to the UK government to refuse extradition immediately, and release Assange.”
Rundle has noted Labor’s hypocritical stance on Assange. It exploited security leaks used by journalist Annika Smethurst to attack the Coalition government’s proposed expansion of surveillance powers in 2018 and 2019.
Stuart Rees, founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation, said there is a new form of politics “in the air”. Citing Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s remarks that there could be no future without generosity and forgiveness, he said any intervention to free Assange would be “a next step towards recovery of national self-respect”.
The only thing for Albanese to do, according to Rees, is to get on the phone to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to cancel the extradition.
It should not be forgotten that former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard accused Assange of illegality in December 2010 for publishing US Department of State cables. “Let’s not try and put any glosses over this. It would not happen, information would not be on WikiLeaks if there had not been an illegal act undertaken.”
Gillard sent the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in to investigate, hoping to “provide the government with some advice about potential criminal conduct of the individual involved”.
The priority was to identify any laws that might have been broken. And there was, she claimed perversely, “the commonsense test about the gross irresponsibility of this conduct”. Gillard was not a fan of exposing state illegality, notably by the US.
Liberty Victoria president Spencer Zifcak said he was “astonished” by Gillard’s remarks. “There is no charge, there is no trial, there is no properly constituted court, and yet the Prime Minister deems it appropriate to say that Mr Assange has committed a criminal offence.”
Opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis failed to identify any Australian or US law that might have been breached.
The AFP concluded its investigation within a fortnight and informed then attorney-general Robert McClelland that “given the documents published to date are classified by the United States, the primary jurisdiction for any further investigation into the matter remains the United States”. The AFP said it failed to find “the existence of any criminal offences where Australia would have jurisdiction”.
How Assange’s fate is handled will reveal the new government’s attitude to traditional alliances. When asked recently how he would approach the Assange case, Albanese had removed the hat of candour: “My position is that not all foreign affairs is best done with the loudhailer.”
Now more embedded than ever in the US security framework, crowned by the AUKUS alliance, the length Australia’s politicians will go to rock the boat of cordial understanding on Assange is unlikely to be extensive. Even if Albanese prefers to put the loudhailer aside, the prospects of seeming supine and looking ineffectual are brutally real.
[Dr Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]