Australian MPs' mission to free Julian Assange

September 25, 2023
The cross-party MPs in Washington. Photo: Senator Peter Whish-Wilson/Facebook

A six-member delegation of Australian MPs has just ended a short stint to lobby members of the US Congress and various relevant officials to release Julian Assange.

If extradited to the United States from Britain to face 18 charges, 17 framed with reference to the oppressive, extinguishing Espionage Act 1917, the founder of WikiLeaks could receive a 175-year prison term.

Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, Labor MP Tony Zappia, Greens Senators David Shoebridge and Peter Whish-Wilson, Liberal Senator Alex Antic and the independent member for Kooyong, Dr Monique Ryan, are to be viewed with respect.

During their visit, a letter published on page 9 of the Washington Post expressed the views of more than 60 MPs. “As Australian Parliamentarians, we are resolutely of the view that the prosecution and incarceration of the Australian citizen Julian Assange must end.”

This, at least, is a good start.

The AUKUS pact underscores that Australia remains the forward base of US ambitions in the Indo-Pacific: against China and any other rival who dares challenge the US.

For the US, Australia is real estate, its citizenry best treated as subjects represented by even more docile governments.

Assange, and his publishing agenda, act as savage critiques of such assumptions.

The delegates described the following views in what may be described as a mission to educate. From Senator Shoebridge, the continued detention of Assange proved to be “an ongoing irritant in the bilateral relationship” between Canberra and Washington. “If this matter is not resolved and Julian is not brought home, it will be damaging to the bilateral relationship.”

Senator Whish-Wilson focused on the activities of Assange saying: “The extradition of Julian Assange as a foreign journalist conducting activities on foreign soil is unprecedented”.  To create such a “dangerous precedent” laid “a very slippery slope for any democracy to go down.”

Liberal Senator Alex Antic emphasised the spike in concern for Assange to return to Australia (some nine out of 10 wish for such an outcome). “We’ve seen 67 members of the Australian parliament share that message in a joint letter, which we’ve delivered across the spectrum”. This has “never happened before. I think we’re seeing an incredible groundswell, and we want to see Julian at home as soon as possible.”

In front of the Department of Justice, Zappia told reporters on September 20: “We’ve had several meetings … they’ve all been useful.” The Labor MP said the delegation had “put our case very clearly about the fact that Julian Assange pursuit and detention and charges should be dropped and should come to an end”.

The delegates felt the value of the US-Australian alliance is a rich quarry that can be mined.

Ryan reasoned: “This side of the AUKUS partnership feels really strongly about this and so what we expect the prime minister [Anthony Albanese] to do is that he will carry the same message to President Biden when he comes to Washington”.

Gabriel Shipton, Assange’s brother suggested that the indictment is “a wedge in the Australia-US relationship, which is a very important relationship at the moment, particularly with everything that’s going on with the US and China and the sort of strategic pivot that is happening”.

Various members of Congress did meet the six MPs, including two Kentucky Congressmen, Republican Senator Rand Paul and Republican House Representative Thomas Massie.

After meeting the Australian delegation, Massie declared that it was his “strong belief [Assange] should be free to return home”.

Georgian Republican House member Marjorie Taylor Greene expressed her sense of honour at having met the delegates “to discuss the inhumane detention” of Assange “for the crime of committing journalism,” insisting that the charges be dropped and a pardon granted.

“America should be a beacon of free speech and shouldn’t be following in an authoritarian regime’s footsteps.” Greene has shown herself to be a conspiracy devotee, but there was little to fault her regarding these sentiments.

Minnesota Democrat Congresswoman Ilhan Omar also met the MPs to discuss “the Assange prosecution and its significance as an issue in the bilateral relationship between the United States and Australia, as well as the implications for freedom of the press both at home and abroad”.

She also reiterated her view, expressed in an April letter to the Department of Justice, co-signed with six other members of Congress, that the charges against Assange be dropped.

These consistent opinions have rarely swayed the Justice Department, which continues to operate within the consensus that Assange is an aberration and threat to US security. They can rely, ultimately, on the calculus of attrition that assumes allies of Washington will eventually belt up, even if they grumble.

There will always be those who pretend to question, such as Foreign Minister Penny Wong. “We have raised this many times,” Wong responded to a query while in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly. “Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken and I both spoke about the fact that we had a discussion about the views that the United States has and the views that Australia has [on Assange].”

Not that this mattered a jot. In July, Blinken stomped on Wong’s views about Assange, reminding her the publisher had been “charged with very serious criminal conduct in the United States in connection with his alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of our country”.

The libel duly followed, with the claim that Assange “risked very serious harm to our national security, to the benefit of our adversaries, and put named sources at grave risk – grave risk – of physical harm, and grave risk of detention”.

That falsification of history went unaddressed by Wong.

Thus far, Blinken has waived away the Albanese government’s concerns on Assange’s fate.

However small their purchase, six MPs chose to press the issue further. At the very least, they have added a bit of ballast to the effort. 

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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