When Julian Paul Assange was 18 months old, Australia had another fugitive journalist, Wilfred Burchett, who was exiled from his homeland by a Coalition government in Canberra.

Burchett’s enforced exile came to an end in December 1972 when the incoming Labor government of prime minister Gough Whitlam issued him with an Australian passport.

Whitlam gave the instruction to restore Burchett’s legal right to a passport in the first hours of the existence of the so-called duumvirate, when he and his deputy, defence minister Lance Barnard, ran a two-man executive government prior to the appointment of a full cabinet.

After Burchett lost his passport in 1955, prime minister Robert Menzies issued a directive that the Melbourne-born war correspondent should not be issued with a new one. He also contacted the British Foreign Office telling Whitehall not to issue him with a passport either.

The subsequent Coalition governments of Harold Holt, John Gorton and Billy McMahon all upheld the illegal ban in pursuance of Cold War hysteria, which had generously helped Coalition election campaigns since the early 1950s.

Assange supporters are asking today whether Malcolm Turnbull is prepared to “do a Gough”. Will he offer the WikiLeaks founder a new passport and ask the British government to provide him with a safe passage to Heathrow Airport to catch a plane home?

Like Qantas, Assange “still calls Australia home” and is lawfully entitled to a passport and the opportunity to be reunited with his son, family, friends and supporters.

He has no charges laid against him, and a special United Nations report released last week found that he is being illegally detained by Britain and Sweden.

It is within Turnbull’s often-stated views on press freedom and human rights to end Assange’s limbo-land existence inside the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge.

As a barrister, he successfully fought against the Thatcher government’s attempt to ban publication in Australia of Spycatcher, the MI5 memoirs of Peter Wright.

As a journalist on The Bulletin, Turnbull stridently opposed artistic and press censorship, and as an IT pioneer with Ozemail.com Turnbull advocated internet democracy.

When the former Labor foreign minister Bob Carr dragged his feet on supporting Assange, Turnbull privately argued that Canberra could do more to assist the beleaguered Australian whistleblower.

One of Assange’s legal representatives, Geoffrey Robertson QC, told friends in Sydney that Malcolm Turnbull, then in opposition, was doing all he could to end Assange’s legal plight in Britain.

Last week Australian journalist John Pilger wrote that he had spent several hours with Turnbull in Sydney four years ago discussing the Assange case. “We discussed the threats to Assange and their wider implications for freedom of speech and justice and why Australia was obliged to stand by him,” Pilger wrote.

He called on Turnbull to speak up for “his unjustly imprisoned compatriot for whom he showed such concern when we met.” 

However, being a fair-weather ally is a peculiar feature of Turnbull’s personality. His liberalism is honourable, but it is also seasonal.

In any contest between Julian Assange’s civil rights and nurturing diplomatic relations with Washington and London, Turnbull will unerringly take the side of the rich and powerful.

Turnbull is no Gough Whitlam.

Peter Fray

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