Humphrey McQueen: WikiLeaks and the fight for free speech

February 26, 2011
Protest for free speech in Barkley Square, Brunswick, after Green Left Weekly was banned, May, 2010. Photo from Takver /flickr

The article below is based on a December 16 speech by Canberra-based freelance historian Humphrey McQueen. McQueen spoke at a Canberra rally organised to defend WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief Julian Assange.

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By what right are we here today? Why are we confident that we can protest and not be shot at by the political police on the fringes of this crowd?

We take it for granted that we won’t be arrested as we leave. We do not expect to lose our jobs by speaking out for WikiLeaks.

The constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia gives us no right to peaceful assembly. The only two rights in that document are fair compensation for confiscated property and freedom from religious discrimination in the public service.

Nor is our right to be here today in the Magna Carta. That document gave power to the barons against the monarch. The serfs had to revolt against both kings and lords to gain a breathing space.

Under pressure from the ultra-reactionary Citizens Electoral Lobby, the Coalition spokespeople on education want the Magna Carta taught in the national school curriculum.

Julie Bishop and Christopher Pyne contend that our rights arrived from England in a box. The truth is that such rights as we possess were won against the likes of Bishop and Pyne.

Their political and ideological forebears opposed the rights that they now pretend to endorse. When those rights were being won, their kind denounced the struggle for freedom as terrorism.

For instance, who gave us a free press? Was it some Murdoch from 200 years back? No. A free press was won by London radical printers.

One hero was the Republican and atheist Richard Carlile.

He was backed by 150 tradesmen and others who, between them, went to prison for a total of 200 years. The tally would have been greater had London juries not often refused to convict, despite the bias of the presiding judges.

At the same time, in the penal colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), the governors imprisoned newspaper editors.

The editor of the Sydney Monitor, Edward Hall, continued to edit his paper from his prison cell.

These ex-convicts brought an end to the licensing of newspapers here in Australia before that freedom came to Britain.

Who is the rightful inheritor of Carlile and Hall? Rupert Murdoch or Julian Assange?

Hall and Carlile won our right to know what is in WikiLeaks and they won it against the Murdochs and the Gillards of the 19th century. Of course, the media will never be truly free until they cease to be businesses.

So again I ask: by what right do we assemble here today? Our right to assemble was won by continuing struggles.

Free-speech fights have raged across Australia for nearly 200 years.

Take one case.

The NSW government banned the British union leader Tom Mann from speaking in Broken Hill during the 1909 strike. When Mann stood just inside the South Australian border, hundreds took special trains to hear him. Where is a politician today who could get anyone to cross the street to endure their spin-doctoring?

The right to speak without a police permit became a burning issue during the fight against conscription in 1916 and 1917.

At the time, so-called British liberties had been wiped out by the War Precautions Act. The solicitor-general later explained the scope of its powers: “The result soon was that John Citizen was hardly able to lift a finger without coming under the penumbra of some technical offence …”

The legal right to speak, publish and assemble had been abolished. The practical rights to do so were kept alive by the hundreds who broke the law.

Speaking in the Hobart Domain in 1916, union organiser Samuel Champ answered our question: “Our liberties were not won by mining magnates or stock-exchange jobbers, but by genuine men of the working-class movement who had died on the gallows and rotted in dungeons and were buried in nameless graves.

“These were the men to whom we owed the liberties we enjoyed today. Eight hours and other privileges in Australia had been won by men who suffered gaol and persecution.”

The War Precautions Act of 1914 was still being used against union officials 10 years after the end of World War I. By then, the government had set up a political police force and passed a Crimes Act aimed at any kind of dissent.

Take a case from the 1930s depression. On Friday night, May 19, 1933, the Communist painter Noel Counihan locked himself in a metal cage on Sydney Road, Brunswick, to allow himself to keep speaking to the public while the police cut the bars and locks.

Meanwhile, the police had shot a decoy speaker in the thigh — he carried that bullet for the rest of his life as a testament to British liberties.

Counihan joined 17 others in prison for speaking in public. They held Marxist study classes and taught the other inmates to sing the International. The conviction was overturned on an appeal through a technicality.

Far more importantly, the campaign for free speech had become so intense that the government had to rewrite the Street Meetings Act. Permits were no longer necessary. Brunswick now boasts a monument to the free-speech fighters.

The free speech contest takes ever-new forms. Throughout 2010, the Melbourne City Council has been harassing the defenders of the Fertility Control Clinic in Wellington Parade. Members of the feminist group Radical Women turn out once a month in defiance.

By what right? Our right to be here today was upheld by street marches in Brisbane throughout the 1970s against the corrupt and reactionary regime of Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Thousands were arrested, many of them bashed more than once. In their front ranks was Labor Senator George Georges. Where is the ALP senator today who would spend nights in a prison cell? They are too busy attending $10,000-dinners for the big end of town.

By what right? Our rights have been earned by breaking oppressive laws. The Eureka rebels stood trial in Melbourne in 1855 for treason. They had taken up arms against the Crown.

In terms of the law, they were as guilty as sin. But what happened? Juries of their peers set them free. The jurors did not sentence them to hang but treated them as the heroes they were.

Across the centuries, oppressive laws have been changed by the good sense of jurors.

Only this year, the prosecutor in the Cairns trial of the young couple charged over the chemical termination of a pregnancy told the jury that they were to apply the law, not to rewrite it.

The jurors knew better and threw the case out, thereby making it highly unlikely that anyone else will be charged with this offence.

By what right do we gather here today? Our right was secured by three votes by the Australian people to reject government policies.

The first two of these victories came during World War I when the people voted against attempts to introduce conscription for overseas service. Had the state got that power, the balance of forces would have been tipped against liberty.

For a start, greater military powers would have opened the door to industrial conscription. The mood of the country would have changed. The defeat of the plebiscites allowed progressives to claim moral authority in their resistance to mass slaughter.

The next mighty victory came in September 1951 when a majority rejected an attempt to alter the constitution to outlaw the Communist Party.

The Robert Menzies Liberal party regime had come to power late in 1949 on a promise to ban the Reds. So confident was the state that it ordered the barbed wire for a concentration camp to hold 1,000 communists and their families.

Unions challenged the law in the High Court. Six of the seven judges said the ban was unconstitutional. Their reasoning had nothing to do with the protection of liberties. They feared that the Act limited the powers of their court.

What happened next is unbelievable in terms of parliamentary performance today. The leader of the Labor Party, “Doc” Evatt, led the campaign against banning the Communists.

He took up this cause with the support of only 12% of the population. Where were the focus groups?

Evatt won the popular vote after tens of thousands of supporters turned that 12% into a slender majority. Where is an ALP leader today with the guts to follow Evatt’s example?

Moreover, the taking up of an unpopular cause did not harm Labor’s popular support. At a half Senate election in May 1953, the Labor vote increased by more than 5% on the poll in April 1951.

Defeating conscription and the anti-Red Act are the pillars of our liberties. They are our Magna Carta. They are our Bill of Rights.

It is no surprise that Pyne and Bishop do not insist on these three victories being in the national curriculum. Without all the struggles sketched above, we might not be able to protest here today.

Without them, would we be allowed to read WikiLeaks’ revelations on the front pages of the capitalist press?

Now I want to change tack and look at occasions when state secrets have helped to perpetrate great crimes. Had the truth been known at the time, millions of lives might have been spared.

Of all previous leaks, none was more significant than the May 1916 deal between the British and French empires to parcel out the Ottoman Empire.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement appears in the film Lawrence of Arabia. The horror story of the Middle East is bound up with that secret treaty.

At the time, we were told we were at war for the rights of little nations such as Belgium. The truth of this sordid trade war was that the blood of the Anzacs was shed for oil. The truth was exposed in 1918 once the Bolshevik revolutionaries threw open the Czarist archives.

In 1919, Britain’s minister for warmongering, Winston Churchill, backed an invasion of Russia to overthrow the Soviet government, but the Red Army defeated the reactionaries.

Early in 1945, prime minister Churchill asked his generals to prepare to invade the Soviet Union the moment Nazi Germany surrendered. The military chiefs told him that they would face a mass mutiny.

A year later, in March 1946, he delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech, which is credited with announcing the start of the Cold War.

Perceptions of that declaration would have differed had someone leaked his attempt to attack his Soviet ally while the hot war against fascism was still being fought.

Small wonder that Churchill said that truth in wartime was so precious that it had to be protected by “a bodyguard of lies”.

Now look at some local examples of how a leak might have altered the course of events.

The first case is the dispatch of Australian troops to the war against the peoples of Indochina. Prime Minister Menzies lied to parliament about the commitment to Vietnam in 1965.

On the evening of April 29, he claimed to be reading out a request from the prime minister of South Vietnam. The letter arrived hours later. Moreover, the letter made clear that the initiative had come from Canberra.

The deceit became public 10 years later and is written up in Michael Sexton’s War for the Asking (1981). Had those cables been leaked at the time, the debate around the war would have been very different.

The same is true for the US claims that North Vietnamese patrol boats had attacked US warships in what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

The US government used that allegation to justify its bombing of the North and to step up the war effort. Before the Pentagon Papers exposed the lie in 1971, a million people had been slaughtered. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Papers, faced prosecution for leaking the truth.

Occasionally, crucial documents have fallen through the cracks. During the 1975 chaos that preceded the dismissal of the Gough Whitlam Labor government, some CIA cables got into the hands of journalist Brian Toohey.

They revealed how alarmed the CIA was at Whitlam’s remarks about its spy base at Pine Gap. Meanwhile, in California, two young operatives at another CIA monitoring station saw a mass of cables about what US agencies were doing to undermine the Labor government in Canberra.

As political novices, they tried to pass the information to the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City; the KGB thought it was a sting operation and knocked them back.

The pair went to prison and their story became a book and feature film, The Falcon and the Snowman. We are yet to see the cables setting out what the US was doing to subvert its Australian ally.

Toohey published the Book of Leaks in 1987 with reports from the National Times, the weekly investigative paper.

Once upon a time, the exposures made by WikiLeaks were what journalists did. Now they are mostly stenographers of the ruling class, putting their bylines on press releases from PR agencies for corporate plunder.

From 1975, a range of people have struggled to publish cables about what the Canberra bureaucrats knew and when they knew it about Timor Leste (East Timor).

The authorities said they were suppressing the information to prevent upsetting the military dictatorship in Jakarta. Perhaps they were. They were also shielding themselves from the embarrassment of being complicit in the murder of five journalists at Balibo and then in the mass murder of tens upon tens of thousands of Timorese.

The modestly titled Documents on Australian Defence and Foreign Policy 1968-1975, published by its editors, J. R. Walsh and G. J. Munster, was the subject of High Court cases before the government destroyed all unsold copies.

The substance of the documents became available when the editors summarised them in Secrets of State (1982). Its introduction began with a universal truth: “Doctors bury their mistakes, bureaucrats classify them ‘top secret’.”

The editors explained the grounds for the police action against them — the documents embarrassed public servants and politicians who equated the national interest with their reputations.

Thus it was again in 1999 with the leak of cables around the referendum in Timor Leste. A prime suspect in those leaks, Clinton Fernandes, later exposed the subservience of John Howard, Alexander Downer and Kevin Rudd to Jakarta in his book Reluctant Saviour.

One constant throughout these tussles for information has been Canberra’s performance as deputy-sheriff for the US imperialists.

The naming of ALP Senator Mark Arbib as a point man for the US embassy is nothing compared to the decades of involvement between the ALP and US intelligence, a special relationship which went to the top with former Labor leaders Bob Hawke and Kim Beasley.

PM Julia Gillard’s pursuit of Assange is the latest instance.

Gillard is probably right to call Assange guilty. The counter-terrorism laws here are more repressive than those in Britain and repeat the War Precautions of 1914 when “John Citizen was hardly able to lift a finger without coming under the penumbra of some technical offence”.

Is it possible that Assange has lifted a little finger? The Canberra headquarters for ASIO that is being built under the shadow of the US eagle will house hundreds of spooks whose job descriptions include gathering evidence to prove that he has.

Across the lake, the pollies prate about British liberties in the national gasworks.

My end is in my beginning. Again I ask you to ponder by what right we are here today.

The answer is in our acting as we are doing, that is, by stepping forward to remind governments and corporations that we will not be silent, that we see through their lying as much as we distrust their promises.

Our assembling here this afternoon is just one more example of how Australians have carried forward the Oath sworn at Eureka in December 1854: “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.”

By living up to those sentiments as we are today, we need never hesitate when asked by what right we protest and struggle. Our rights to do so were won as they are now being upheld by protests and in struggle.


I want to congratulate SBS ONE for the amazing documentary of today sunday night,which I hope will give to lots of people food for thought. I am a member of he Amnesty International and from tonight your member too no 519. I am a supporter of Julian Assange, and wish however my old age, I could do more to help. I am sure that Julian Assange realize, that through him , he has giving an esample of courage to all the young people in the world to fight for freedom, without him, the free Tunisia, Egypt, Lybia, and more, will never existed. I want to say to him, you are a great man, get on with the good job With my warmest regards. Simonne Jameson PHD, child survivor of the Holocaust.
Assange is now possibly the most famous australian ever. More famous than Bradman even in places where cricket is unknown. If he's going to be our equivalent of Martin Luther King whether we like it or not, shouldn't current governments and media try not to look so foolish in hindsight, especially with an election coming up?

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