More than 400 people crowded into a lecture theatre at the University of Technology Sydney on February 17 for a public forum, “Don’t shoot the messenger: WikiLeaks, Assange and Democracy”. The forum was organised by the Support Assange and WikiLeaks Coalition.
Speakers at the forum included socialist historian Humphrey McQueen, Greens Senator Scott Ludlum, London-based human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson and Christine Assange, the mother of Julian Assange. Veteran journalist and broadcaster Mary Kostakidis chaired the forum.
The transcript of Scott Ludlum’s address to the meeting is below.
* * *
Well, look at all of you. How many people are outside and couldn’t even get in? Hello also to the internet, because I think the internet is here: we’re livestreaming and people are certainly tweeting the hell out of the event. So if you are watching this from outside the building, we don’t even have room for people to sit on the floor so they’re spilling out the door.
I don’t know what time it is in London and if Julian or any of the others are watching, but maybe can we just give them a quick shout out: hello, you’ve got a lot of supporters down here in Sydney. [applause]
I wanted to start with a quote and I wanted to see if anyone here can tell me who said it. The quote is this: “We will tolerate dissent as long as it is ineffective.” [Crowd member says: “John Gorton”]
Really? I’ve been wanting to know for years and years. [laughter] John Gorton, thank you. Isn’t that interesting. I’ve had this rattling around in my head for ages because I think it’s a really beautiful interpretation of the way that power interprets us. We will tolerate dissent — march up and down, drop a banner — we’ll tolerate it.
But as soon as it actually starts to bite and it looks as though things might change, the tolerance starts running really thin and suddenly you find yourself under attack. I think what we are seeing here is a really interesting example of what to me feels like why we came, why we have packed out this room tonight.
It is to be here in defence of an organisation that provided and enabled some of the most effective and interesting dissent in modern history.
This is partly because it is a campaign about information. It’s about the freedom of information and transparency of information, which makes it an enabling campaign. With that we can do all the other kinds of stuff that we do.
Presumably for an audience that has come here tonight, I would imagine … or rather, let's not imagine, let's find out. Stick your hands up if you are working on campaigns for social justice or environmental protection or looking after people other than yourselves and your families. All right, that’s nearly everybody.
I would have put my hand up if I was raising a kid. I think that’s one of the most powerful things you can do, so a shout-out to the parents as well.
But the reason that we’ve come together is to act in defence of an enabling organisation, because without the freedom to publish, the freedom to read, and the freedom to speak, none of the other stuff that we do is possible.
And that, I think, is not so much about the information itself, it’s about what Tunisians did with it. It’s about what Egyptians did with it. It’s a bit like what Sea Shepherd did with it. It goes right down to very fine-grained environmental NGOs who are referenced in the state department cables. People use that information and are changing the world with it.
And so it is very important that we come to the defence of an organisation that has already been beautifully described by the previous two speakers [Mary Kostakidis and Humphrey McQueen]. Now is the time for the safety of crowds. Now is the time to actually circle around and show that there are many, many of us.
We have been subjected — including people who are pretty progressive and maybe should know better — to a really effective campaign of distraction. It’s become all about this weird, white-haired Australian guy and what he maybe got up to in Sweden. And the fact that he’s a nomad that has lived out of a backpack.
The focus has been shifted on to the handful of people that have put themselves on the front line. And while we are talking about that, we’re not talking about war crimes. We’re not talking about what happened in the Collateral Murder video or some of the lesser-known stuff that is in the cables.
Who has had a crack at the state department cable database? Who has gone on a random trip through it? Stick your hand up. Only a handful. Less than 5% of the audience, but most of the panellists.
Try it. Even if you are not looking to expose something, the database is actually very good. Just go for a little wander and have a look at how these people communicate with each other.
Most of it is extraordinarily mundane. But it’s worth a look. And that is what we have been distracted from because there is stuff in there that is not mundane.
There are revelations, documentation and acknowledgements of war crimes on behalf of Australia’s great and powerful ally, the United States. There are no prosecutions, but casual murder, prisoners dying on the way to military prisons, people just being shot to death in cold blood and the most extraordinary human rights abuses that all governments perpetrate, quite frankly. But in this instance it was the US state department and before that the department of defence.
We need that stuff, because for us it exposes the gap between what we are told and what is actually going on. It’s a tiny little slice of reality. And it’s up to us to do with it as we will.
We can look away and talk about all kinds of other stuff. The media have been doing that very, very effectively I think: “Hey look over here, look at this strange guy from Melbourne.”
We have to drag our eyes back to what these people are doing and the purpose of the work in the first place.
I think the reason the pushback on this organisation has been so harsh is really because of that quote I introduced right at the beginning. This organisation has been very effective.
They decided not to play by some of the rules. One of the newspapers, I think it was the New York Times, had the Collateral Murder video for 12 months and sat on it. They didn’t publish it. Maybe they thought it would harm the war effort or something. But they didn’t publish it. And that, I think, is where we are showing that the system, maybe, is broken.
The timing of tonight is really interesting. For many of us, I suspect, WikiLeaks has been around since 2006. But not a lot of folk know that. Maybe not many knew of the work they had been doing for the Kenyans. One of the most important early releases on that website was around really serious and systematic corruption in Kenya.
But for most people they really exploded on to the world stage in 2010. First with the Collateral Murder tape and then Afghanistan and Iraq War Logs. Then right at the end of 2010, they went “bang” — the state department cables. Suddenly Julian is on the front cover of Time magazine and suddenly you get the sense that the world has changed. That something big has happened.
At exactly that time, the hammer comes down on these [allegations] in Sweden. So most of the time that the world has been aware of this organisation, WikiLeaks, the editor-in-chief has had his foot nailed to the floor. He’s been under house arrest. He can’t go very far from where he is staying.
The organisation has had the financial oxygen sucked out of it by this banking blockade that we are still trying to work out whether or not is legal. And that has been the status quo since the organisation shot to such prominence.
Now that is about to change. In a matter of days, maybe weeks, that situation is going to change, one way or another.
And so isn’t it great that we are here tonight in each others’ company of, look around, people like you — you may have never met except on the internet perhaps — who care and who turned up to this rather than doing all the other things that we could have been doing. Because it is all about to shift.
The Australian government, this is where we have a certain amount of agency here — as electors and citizens of this country, if you have that good fortune — to hold our government to account.
Our government has a unique responsibility because Julian Assange is an Australian citizen. So we couldn’t be doing exactly this kind of work in any other country in the world. This is where he comes from. This is his passport. This is his citizenship. And so we, through our government, have a duty of care to make sure that he is protected and offered the maximum diplomatic and consular support that he can be.
Quite frankly, since I’ve been working on this case, which is not all that long compared with some here, the Australian government has done just a small amount above stuff-all. It has done the absolute bare minimum to get away without basic condemnation.
Felicity, who is my colleague, has sat through 11 budget estimates committees, which are amazing parliamentary marathons that most people don’t even know occur. You get to meet up with the senior public servants and say, Mr head of ASIO, are you spying on the guy (and he says “we can’t possibly tell you that”).
Or you get to talk to the competition regulator and ask if the banking blockade is legal. These kind of things we are able to do and channel questions through the info. What we’ve noticed from the stuff that we were asking last week, compared to the stuff we were asking a year ago, is that absolutely nothing has happened.
The Australian government is actually perfectly stationary and motionless. There is complete inertia. Apart from a couple of really unwise and unguarded statements on behalf of the Attorney General and the Prime Minister at the end of 2010, nothing at all.
And that is because the shove from us hasn’t yet hit the pain threshold. They know we are there. They know very, very well that if you go out and do a poll [asking] should the Australian government have done more to look after WikiLeaks nearly 90% of the population will say yes.
But it’s latent support. Nobody is rioting or overturning cars. A handful of folk will turn up to the rallies and we can get a packed house tonight on the eve of something big happening. So the Australian government knows that that support is there and I can imagine they are scratching their heads at the moment saying “what are we going to do” if any one of a number of things happen.
Say he beats the [allegations] in Sweden and the European Arrest Warrant thing just falls over — and he has got superb lawyers so maybe it will — and he comes back here. What will the Australian government do if the United States moves to extradite him from here? What will they do?
They will have to do something because at some point they will have to say yes, or no. And that yes or no will be determined by you. And I’m not being melodramatic, because it really will. They will look at the polls. They will look at the number of people hanging around outside Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade offices. They will count emails. They will count signatures on petitions. And they will work out where the pain threshold lies.
And [they will work out] whether their allegiances lie with the United States government or with you. And this is why it's great we are here tonight because this is actually all about to change.
What if he goes to Sweden and they move for what would effectively be a rendition from Sweden to the United States? What would the Australian government do then? And so on.
So we have had this year or more of stasis. The whole time that this organisation has been prominent and at the forefront of our minds, that’s been the status quo. And the Australian government has been able to just back away a bit from the microphone and hope that nothing too dramatic happens.
But some dramatic things are probably about to happen.
If the world is unsafe for an organisation like WikiLeaks, then the world is unsafe for us. And I think, from some of the more unhinged commentary from really senior administration and Republican figures in the United States, the world is unsafe for organisations like WikiLeaks.
The rule of law, which we just rely on because it is the ocean that we swim around in, is really at risk. Not just in Australia, where I think we still have a lot of agency and a lot of safety to go about the work that we do, but our friends and our fellow campaigners in the United States are facing what looks to me as increasing authoritarianism from a regime that is increasingly edgy and unsure of itself and its ability to hold on.
And that is something that we need to really fight back and remember what it is that we are trying to protect here.
And that is what I mean, I suppose, about the safety of the crowd. If one stands up, then we are really easy to pick off. So we all have to stand up.
Hands up if you’ve got a Mastercard account? Hands up if you have a Visa? Hands up if you have ever used PayPal? So all of you have just extended your power, if you choose to, beyond the democratic campaign and into the financial domain.
I am a Mastercard holder, so we hauled this poor fellow from Mastercard in to Parliament House the other day and asked him what the hell they were doing with this financial blockade on a publisher, more than a year after this blockade came down.
We had a really interesting conversation and I can’t disclose what he said. So why don’t you ask them. Write a letter to Mastercard, say excuse me I’m —don’t use the word consumer if you can possibly avoid it, I think it’s a revolting word and we should shove it into the same place we shove commercial-in-confidence — but I’m using your services, I was pretty happy with them, but you have removed my freedom to deal with a legitimate organisation that hasn’t been convicted of a crime in any country. What on Earth are you doing? Is that even legal? Should I write to the competition regulator? Or will you just lift the blockade and be reasonable?
There’s 20 minutes. Really easy. Who is going to actually do that? C’mon. [laughter] Someone said Amazon? Take your pick. They’ve killed more than 90% of the organisation's funding. And this all came down subsequent to the release of the state department cables.
I think Christine [Assange] might talk about other ideas for what you can do, so I’m not going to dwell there, apart from to remember that government is not a monolith. And maybe that is another thing that you can tell from reading those cables, poking around in the entrails of how governments actually are.
They’re people. There’re just people. Most of them are not even bad people. Systems and structures can make good people do some pretty terrible things. But most of the people that we are dealing with don’t want this guy to go to jail.
Most people inside the public service — you know Canberra is actually a pretty leftie town, really, it’s the “Greenest” city in the country — really think that what this organisation has done is powerful and important. We have allies everywhere, but we are not speaking up yet.
And so I think what we are doing tonight is calling “time”, that we’re going to need to speak up. Probably really soon, because things are about to shift. And nobody really knows in which direction they are going to go.
I’m going to wrap it up there. But I love the idea of Humphrey [McQueen’s] seditious pamphlets. Did everyone get a seditious pamphlet on their way in? Please take your seditious pamphlet on the way home. If none of them appeal to you, print your own. [laughter] That wasn’t a joke.
We’ve democratised the publishing industry. If you’ve got a few hundred bucks you can be a publisher. Indeed, you can just scan it and be a publisher for nothing these days. So publish, don’t wait to read this stuff in the New York Times, because what else are they sitting on if they sat on a video like that for such a long time.