WILLIAM BRIGGS Julian Assange and the Australian Election – the issue that must not speak its name

May 9, 2019

Julian Assange was arrested and taken from the Ecuadorean embassy just one day after the Federal election was called. Coincidences, or accidents of chance can, just occasionally, present political opportunities. This particular coincidence offered a chance for the arrest, and the whole saga of his years in the Ecuadorean embassy to figure, if only in a minor capacity, in the election process, but on the contrary the players in the election, quickly drew a line under the entire affair.

Political parties and candidates have had absolutely nothing to say. The media, while giving coverage to the arrest and the possibilities of extradition to the US, have remained similarly mute, apart from one very brief moment on the day that the election was called.

When questioned about the arrest, Scott Morrison replied that, “he’ll get that consular assistance as you’d expect him to, but he will have to make his way through whatever comes his way in terms of the justice system there.” Almost simultaneously Bill Shorten commented that “I think he should receive consular assistance, beyond that I don’t know all the facts of the matter … he should deserve the ability to be represented in court, which he will be.” Our two ‘leaders’ were not at the same venue, but showed a collective spirit and mind, which did neither of them any credit. The Greens had already missed their chance. Over the past several years, they made statements about Assange, but had repeatedly failed to move any resolution in the Senate.

Federal elections are times when the major political parties try, often unsuccessfully, to find points of differentiation. Each seeks to ‘prove’ that there are real points of departure, politically, economically and philosophically that separate them. It seems to get harder with each electoral cycle and more voters sigh at the prospect of trying to find that elusive difference, where, increasingly, there appears to be none. This is sadly reflected when opinion polls come out. Regularly we see the primary vote of the ALP hovering at around 33 per cent and the Coalition at about 36 per cent. These are really very low figures and yet the ‘fear’ of taking a risk, or conversely, of adopting anything like a ‘principled’ stance on any issue, never seems to intrude into the political thinking.

The case of Julian Assange ought not to be regarded as ‘dangerous’ for the ALP, especially when considered against the backdrop of its December 2018 national conference. Conference documents bravely asserted that “Australia should protect the safety of Australians overseas.” This comes after years of refusing to lift a finger to ‘protect’ Assange as an Australian citizen. But then, Assange’s problems with the law are a little different. His ‘crime’, to use his own words, was in “doing journalism which has won many, many awards and protected many, many people.” Among the awards bestowed on him are the 2008 Economist ‘New Media’ award, the 2009 Amnesty International UK Media award, the 2010 Time ‘Person of the Year’ readers’ choice, LeMonde Person of the Year readers’ choice, the 2011 Voltaire award etc., etc.

In late 2010, Labor’s Attorney-General, Robert McClelland stated that, “we think there are potentially a number of criminal laws that could have been breached by the release of this information.” The journalism that won Assange such accolades and such vilification from the US was the journalism that exposed war crimes. This, in the parlance of the ALP and all political establishments in this country and in the eyes of other US allies, is a criminal action. The world, it would seem is a topsy-turvy place.

This feeling that the world is becoming unbalanced becomes even more pronounced when we consider that World Press Freedom Day was celebrated, just a few days ago, on May 3. UNESCO holds this event to celebrate “the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.” Admittedly Assange has not paid with his life, but there remains a very real possibility, in the estimation of his legal advocates, that extradition to the US might well end with a death penalty.

Australians then, head off to the polls. The primary vote of the principal players continues to contract and yet the parties refuse, even for a moment to offer anything like a point of differentiation. To do so might just ‘frighten the horses’ and that would never do. Assange and the issue of freedom of the press, should not frighten too many horses. Who knows, it might even promote political debate and discourse in an election atmosphere that inspires so very few electors. For any but the most minor political party in this election to demand that the Australian government act to have Assange returned to Australia reflects very poorly on politics in this country but does go some way to explain just why so few voters have any faith in their elected representatives.

Dr William Briggs is a political economist with special interests in the global political economy and political theory. His book, Classical Marxism in an Age of Capitalist Crisis: the past is prologue, has recently been published.

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