Two leading ALP Left faction MPs have added their voices to a chorus of dissent rejecting the prime minister’s official line on WikiLeaks, telling Crikey this morning that renegade publisher Julian Assange should be backed to the hilt on freedom of speech grounds.

Feisty Labor Senator Doug Cameron, who has previously bemoaned the lack of debate inside the federal caucus, called this morning for Assange to “be offered full consular support”.

“He should be treated as innocent until proved otherwise,” he told Crikey today.

Cameron said WikiLeaks went to the heart of the issue of freedom of the press to publish without fear or favour: “I support press freedom and believe it is an important element of a democratic society… WikiLeaks seems to be operating consistent with other media outlets only on a massive scale.”

Cameron’s factional colleague, Calwell MP Maria Vamvakinou, who holds her northern Melbourne seat by a commanding 19.7%, also broke ranks, telling Crikey the equation was simple: “If you believe in freedom of speech and transparency you can’t pick and choose.

“Where government may some concerns about some things not being in the public domain, the reality is a lot of the information WikiLeaks is revealing is of public interest.”

Cameron echoed Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd’s statements that the leaks are a product of US security failures, saying extremists calling for Assange to be prosecuted under domestic anti-terrorism laws needed to be reined in.

“The scale of the leaks are a product of US security failures and calls by more extreme elements here and in Australia to use terrorist laws against Assange are reprehensible and in my view unsustainable,” he said.

Those extreme elements appear to include the prime minister and the attorney general, Robert McClelland, who have both backed an Australian Federal Police probe into Assange. The PM has implied the Australian citizen is responsible for the “theft” of the cables, slamming the trailblazer’s conduct as “grossly irresponsible”.

Less than 24 hours after the first batch of cables was released, McClelland rushed to condemn their publication and announced that the AFP and a “whole-of-government taskforce” had been told to investigate whether Assange and WikiLeaks had breached any Australian laws.

McClelland was clear in his language that Australia would do anything it could to help the United States, effectively hanging Assange out to dry: “The release of this information could prejudice the safety of people referred to in the documentation and, indeed, could be damaging to the national security interests of the United States and its allies, including Australia. So obviously Australia will support any law enforcement action that may be taken.”

The uprising within the Left — including Laurie Ferguson, Sharon Grierson and Melissa Parke — will increase pressure on the PM to mollify her public statements on WikiLeaks and comes after a weekend of protests defending Assange across Australia. It could also re-ignite intra-party recriminations that continue to fester following Rudd’s assassination as prime minister in June.

(Human services minister Tanya Plibersek appears not to have got the left caucus memo, going on Sky News yesterday to demand that Assange “face the law” and bullishly backing the actions of US and Australian police.)

Rudd appears to have altered his rhetoric on WikiLeaks, moving him back into line with elements of the Left that supported him in his leadership stoush with the PM. Despite previously condemning the cables in a doorstop with the Bahrain-based outlet Al Arabiya on December 4, he told The Australian overnight he would try to issue Assange — who is languishing inside London’s Wandsworth Prison — with a laptop to assist with his defence.

Rudd also noted he was responsible for the Passports Act and not the prime minister, countering suggestions from McClelland and Gillard that Assange’s passport could be revoked. Ironically, the front-page intervention fits a sustained pattern of sniping and undermining that was unveiled last week in the Cablegate releases themselves.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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