Julian Assange bail
Court artist sketch of Julian Assange (Image: Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire via AP)

The Albanese Labor government has a hell of a lot to do to establish itself and a new way of doing things. The world is not far off a global economic crash; a new regional foreign policy that is not head-bangingly stupid must be put in place; and climate change and integrity policies must be got rolling. A lot of headline stuff. 

Nevertheless, the new government must turn its attention, and soon, to the plight of Australian citizen Julian Assange, and make some form of official representation to the US government to end its attempts to extradite him to the US on espionage and other charges. It should also make representation to the UK government to refuse extradition immediately, and release Assange.

Let’s restate the case simply. Assange is being sought for prosecution, overwhelmingly for allegedly assisting Chelsea Manning, a leaker, to bypass a password that encrypted hundreds of thousands of files. This is the first time that a publisher of leaked information, as opposed to an actual leaker, has been charged in such a way.

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Manning had copied the files from US state databases to a CD and leaked them to WikiLeaks (Assange has denied knowing Manning’s identity at the time of online exchanges between herself and WikiLeaks). The files dealt with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Guantanamo and US diplomatic communiques. She has already been convicted of espionage and other charges, served her time and been pardoned. 

The centre of the case against Assange — 17 charges of espionage, one of computer intrusion — is that in allegedly communicating with Manning, and then suggesting ways to bypass the encryption password, Assange importuned the files’ removal and “made them live”. 

Yet these are the sorts of things that journalists and publishers have done with leaked files as part of standard practice. Get documents picked up and copied, jemmy open a locked briefcase, use experts to work out shorthand and handwriting in leaked files — everything that Assange is accused of doing in a digital setting has long been standard practice of reporting leaked material.

The US charges are thus an attack on journalism, done by a non-US citizen, not on US soil, and published, after months of cooperative work, on US soil by The New York Times, whose editors and publishers have not been charged with anything. 

The Morrison government made no objection at all to extradition, trusting in “the British justice system”, and implicitly supporting US prosecution through silence. Albanese Labor looks like it will be little better. 

“As an Australian citizen, he is entitled to consular assistance,” Penny Wong stated in April. “We also expect the government to keep seeking assurances from both the UK and US that he’s treated fairly and humanely … Consular matters are regularly raised with counterparts, they are regularly raised and this one would be no different.”

This is pathetic and gutless. Labor should honour the basic commitment to free speech and the investigation of hidden power that was an essential task of the labour movement in establishing its right to exist, and its capacity to succeed. The government is not required to stand with every citizen in trouble abroad, but this case is clear: an Australian citizen is being threatened with decades of prison for activities that are essential to the sort of journalism that is constitutive of a pluralist and open society, built on free speech and free inquiry.

Labor is being completely hypocritical in its silence on Assange. In 2018 and 2019, it was very happy to use the leaks-based story by Annika Smethurst on the increased surveillance of Australian citizens by reorganised spy agencies to attack the Coalition government, and then to attack them for the federal police raid on, and threatened prosecution of, Smethurst, calling it the mark of a “tin pot autocracy”.

Labor was, as usual, playing both sides of the street by also insisting they were on a national security unity ticket. But it clearly established a differentiation on free speech and an open society, and it should now act on it. If that is initially no more than a statement of concern while the other basics get done, well that would be a start. 

But it should be followed soon, very soon, by a full advocacy to the US, from its longest-standing and closest ally, of the need to discontinue the prosecution of an Australian citizen for practising the sort of free speech activity that is at the very root of their society, and central to ours. The same representations need to be made to the UK. 

Beyond that, and at the same time, the new independents-Green bloc need to make a joint statement demanding these measures, and that the government press for this. And we now and soon need a joint statement from former national, state and party leaders — Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull, Barnaby Joyce, John Hewson, Bob Carr and others — pressuring the government to take this stance immediately. We need news editors to disregard their right-wing proprietors and lend their shoulders to this push. 

Beyond that, we can’t let our relief at the change of government release the pressure of the broad public campaign. Progressives have lived in a state of political tension for a decade. It is a frequent occurrence that when you get a government that doesn’t make you sick on a daily basis, one turns from the public back to the private, safe in the knowledge that there is actual government. Fair enough on some matters, but don’t take more than a couple of weeks. 

On a whole range of matters important to progressives — Indigenous incarceration, land clearing, school funding, inadequate climate change response, and more — Labor will be nearly as bad in policy terms as the Coalition. Worse, in terms of its ability to act in a reasonable and efficient manner, rather than the happy-clappy bughouse freakshow we’ve just lived through. That unity ticket includes a denial of their responsibilities to Assange, his rights, and thereby our rights as well. Assange’s health is failing and the shadow of civil death — endless incarceration — is upon him, so this matter is of the greatest urgency. Labor must act. And so must we. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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