The sham that is the Julian Assange affair shows no signs of abating. Prior to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese assuming office, he insisted that the matter dealing with the WikiLeaks publisher would be finally resolved.
Since then, as with all matters regarding United States policy, Australia will, if not agree outright with Washington, adopt a non-committal position. “Quiet diplomacy” is the official line taken by Albanese and Australian foreign minister Penny Wong.
As Greens Senator David Shoebridge remarked: “‘Quiet diplomacy’ to bring Julian Assange home by the Albanese government is a policy of nothing. Not one meeting, phone call or letter sent.”
Kellie Tranter, a tireless advocate for Assange, has worked to uncover the nature of that position through Freedom of Information requests. “They tell the story – not the whole story – of institutionalised prejudgment, ‘perceived’ rather than ‘actual’ risks and complicity through silence.”
The story is a resoundingly ugly one: it features stubbornness on the part of US authorities to even disclose the existence of a process seeking Assange’s extradition from Britain, to the lack of interest on the part of the Australian government to pursue direct diplomatic and political interventions.
Former foreign minister Julie Bishop exemplified that in signing off on a ministerial submission in February 2016 recommending that the Assange case not be resolved: those in Canberra were “unable to intervene in the due process of another’s country’s court proceedings or legal matters, and we have full confidence in UK and Swedish judicial systems”.
Given the political nature of Assange’s persecution, this was a confidence both misplaced and disingenuous.
Australia took the same position to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which found that same month that Assange had been subject to “different forms of deprivation of liberty: initial detention in Wandsworth prison which was followed by house arrest and his confinement at the Ecuadorean embassy”.
The Working Group further argued that Assange’s “safety and physical integrity” be guaranteed, that “his right to freedom of movement” be respected and that he enjoy the full slew of “rights guaranteed by the international norms on detention”.
At the time, such outlets as The Guardian covered themselves in gangrenous glory in insisting that Assange was not being detained arbitrarily and was merely ducking the authorities in favour of a “publicity stunt”.
The conduct from Bishop and her colleagues did little to challenge such assertions, although the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade did confirm in communications with Tranter, in June 2018, that the government was “committed to engaging in good faith with the United Nations Human Rights Council and its mechanisms, including the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention”.
Stephen Smith, the new Australian High Commissioner to Britain, has kept up that tradition: he has offered unconvincing support for one of Belmarsh Prison’s most notable detainees.
As the ABC reported on April 4, Smith expressed pleasure “that in the due course of next week or so he’s agreed that I can visit him in Belmarsh Prison”.
(This comes with the usual qualification: that up to 40 offers of “consular” support had been previously made and declined by the publisher.)
The new High Commissioner is promising little. “My primary responsibility will be to ensure his health and wellbeing and to inquire as to his state and whether there is anything that we can do, either with respect to prison authorities or to himself to make sure that his health and safety and wellbeing is of the highest order.”
Assange’s health and wellbeing, which has and continues to deteriorate, is a matter of court and common record. No consular visit is needed to confirm that fact.
As for what Smith would be doing to convince Britain to reverse the decision of former Home Secretary Priti Patel to extradite the publisher to the US, he said: “It’s not a matter of us lobbying for a particular outcome. It’s a matter of me as the High Commissioner representing to the UK government as I do, that the view of the Australian government is twofold.
“It is: these matters have transpired for too long and need to be brought to a conclusion, and secondly, we want to, and there is no difficulty so far as UK authorities are concerned, we want to discharge our consular obligations.”
Former Senator Rex Patrick summed up the position by declaring that Smith would be far better off, on instructions from Albanese, pressing the current Home Secretary Suella Braverman to drop the whole matter.
Even better, Albanese might just do the good thing and push US President Joe Biden and his Attorney-General Merrick Garland to end the prosecution.
[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]