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Federal

Mar 19, 2012

Poll Bludger: Assange for Canberra a new can of worms

Australian electoral affairs made a rare entree into the international news on Saturday when Julian Assange announced he would run for a seat in the Senate at the next federal election.

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Australian electoral affairs made a rare entree into the international news on Saturday when Julian Assange announced he would run for a seat in the Senate at the next federal election.

You can read about this at Al-Jazeera, The Washington Post and The Daily Telegraph (to name but the first three that I picked out from a Google news search), or by entering “Assange” into the Twitter search engine, where you will be informed that “Julian Assange Incar Kursi Senat Australia”, that “se postulará Julian Assange a un escaño para el senado de Australia”, and that “Julian Assange will in die Politik gehen”. Best of all was The Huffington Post, which carried a loudly capitalised headline atop its front page reading, “SENATOR ASSANGE?”

Assange had an electoral learning process of his own, which played out live on Twitter on Saturday morning, with a first message from WikiLeaks announcing only that the organisation would be “fielding a candidate to run against Julia Gillard in her home seat of Laylor (sic)”. The Prime Minister has many things to be concerned about so far as the next election is concerned, but the threat to her from a WikiLeaks-backed candidate in Lalor is not among them.

The matter only became of substantial interest when a second tweet followed shortly afterwards proclaiming: “We have discovered that it is possible for Julian Assange to run for the Australian Senate while detained. Julian has decided to run.”

The first issue that confronts him is whether he is eligible to nominate. Evidently he has been advised he does not face a problem, but this appears to have been based on a determination that being under house arrest in the UK need not of itself disqualify him. Another difficulty I might have anticipated is the requirement that he be qualified to be a voter. The key word here is “qualified” — a prospective candidate need not actually be enrolled, thanks to an amendment that parliamentarians made for their own benefit so they would not be disqualified if they failed to keep track of their paperwork and dropped off the roll (which happened to Victorian shadow treasurer Robert Dean at the 2002 state election in Victoria, where no such escape clause existed).

However, a voter who no longer resides in the country will be removed from the roll if he or she does not make an active effort to remain there, and I would have thought Assange would have perceived himself as having bigger fish to fry over the past few years. If so, Assange would only be allowed three years after his departure to get back on the roll, which raises the question of when he ceased to be legally resident — and as far as I can tell, he has not unequivocally resided here since 2007.

A legal incapacity to enrol could be equated to a lack of qualification to be a voter under a literal reading of the relevant section of the Electoral Act, although the wording offers enough ambiguity that an alternative argument might be advanced.

Assuming Assange’s confidence in his capacity to run is well founded, he will then of course have the more conventional electoral hurdles to clear. The major parties are likely to do their part to make them as high as they can.

In view of what the Prime Minister has had to say about Assange’s exploits in the past, Labor would have a hard time defending any decision to preference him ahead of the Coalition. Similarly, a Coalition which discovered the virtues of placing Labor ahead of the Greens at the last Victorian election would presumably feel inclined to give Assange the same treatment. This would present Assange and his party (it may be presumed he would form one) with a similar challenge to that faced over a decade ago by One Nation, which had to find the requisite 14.3% quota for election largely off its own bat and succeeded in doing so only once, in Queensland in 1998.

That would leave the Greens as the only substantial source of preferences for Assange’s party, and the two would find themselves competing over much the same electoral turf. The most likely scenario for Assange winning a seat in whichever state he chose to run would thus involve him poaching slightly over half the Greens’ vote, so as to finish ahead of their candidate and then ride home to a quota when their preferences were distributed. For that to happen, he would be shooting for roughly 10% of the vote.

If he were to succeed, a new can of worms would open. Assange’s capacity to take his seat in parliament in mid-2014, when the result of the half-Senate election would take effect (I believe it safe to assume there will be no double dissolution), is what Donald Rumsfeld might have called a known unknown.

Electoral law expert Graeme Orr offers the British precedent of Bobby Sands, the Provisional Irish Republican Army member who was elected to the House of Commons while on hunger strike in prison in 1981, and died a month later. Should Assange find himself similarly placed (presumably minus the hunger strike), he would find his seat declared vacant after a few months of absence by virtue of section 20 of the Constitution. If Assange were elected under the auspices of his own party, it would then get to choose his successor. If not, it would be left to the relevant state parliament — of whatever partisan complexion — to determine the matter as it saw fit.

But a fair bit of water remains to pass under the bridge before then.

William Bowe — Editor of The Poll Bludger

William Bowe

Editor of The Poll Bludger

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, is one of the most heavily trafficked forums for online discussion of Australian politics, and joined the Crikey stable in 2008.

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24 comments

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24 thoughts on “Poll Bludger: Assange for Canberra a new can of worms

  1. Mahum Asmi Ahum

    How perfect. I am all for integrity, transparency of governments, citizens rights to free speech and sharing of information without government interference. I am not for a Prime Minister’s job being gained by stealth. I am against not doing the job one is employed and paid excellently to do. Julia Gillard was, I believe, supposed to be liasing between the Prime Minister the Australian people voted in and the Cabinet ministers, but she preferred to take Rudd’s job because many Cabinet ministers were peeved that he didn’t communicate sufficiently with them. He was too busy doing what he said he would do, that is, carrying out the public and social policies that he had stated he would carry out.

    Surely they were a little more mature than that to qualify for the jobs they had? Perhaps more to the point was that Rudd’s integrity in carrying out what he said he would, just might have narrowed the gap between the rich a poor in Australia given a little time . This may have meant that those Cabinet ministers may have found themselves sharing power and access to the nation’s resources a little more equally between all citizens. Rudd’s challenge to the miners to share a tiny percentage of their multi billions of wealth was also courageous, almost fearless …. but premature since the greed of the big cats and would be big cats had not yet been sufficiently challenged to allow this to happen. Gillard dropped the ball then. She didn’t do her work and failed to smooth the friction. She lacks courage and she is as fearful as the Cabinet ministers.

    I like that Assange’s errors by hacking and coming to the attention of the law early in life and more recently by walking into Sweden’s astonishing definitions of ‘rape’ . I like that it is already public. I also like that the USA government has inadvertently revealed itself as the exploiter, torturer, lawbreaker that it is, in response to Assange’s actions. And, did you know, that in stating this opinion, means that they would call me a terrorist. Yes,that’s right. As a committed pacifist who is pro social justice and against war, I fit their category of terrorist . Isn’t there something wrong with this picture? Those that they decide to construct as deviant are usually simply truth tellers. They, Gillard, Cabinet, the mining corporations all have much to hide. However, Assange would have nothing to hide now. He is possibly fearless after all he has been through. Australia needs fearless leaders, not those who sneak up from behind, create laws to excuse their lawbreaking and certainly not those that ignore citizens rights according to Australia’s constitution. Isn’t government’s main job providing safety for Australian citizens? If not …. and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was changed during the Coalition years , we need to know when, why and how.

    I will be voting for Assange.

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