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.