People

“Australia has abandoned him”

The WikiLeaks revelations had a huge impact on Assange's native land, exposing a "Secret Australia" thus far hidden to the public. But what's been Australians' reaction to the fate of their most (in)famous countryman? Felicity Ruby explains.

Felicity Ruby

To be published this December, A Secret Australia discusses what Australia has learnt about itself from the WikiLeaks revelations. The millions of secret and confidential official documents published on the platform have enabled Australian journalists to reveal the shady politics at work in Assange’s native country. The book’s co-editor shares her thoughts on the current trial and Australians’ reaction to the fate of their most famous countryman.

I have only ever known Julian in detention. For ten years now, I have visited him in England – in Ellingham Hall, the Ecuadorian embassy and also Belmarsh prison – and then returned to Australia, a country that has abandoned him.

Australian governments of both flavours have spent a decade doing nothing for this citizen.  Or worse.

Ecuador knew two things for sure when it granted Julian Assange asylum in 2012. First, that the US government intended to extradite and prosecute this publisher for publishing. Second, that he was so obviously without ‘the adequate protection and help that he should receive from the State of which he is a citizen’. 

Australian governments of both flavours have spent a decade doing nothing for this citizen.  Or worse. The Gillard government threatened to remove his passport and stated that the publications of 2010 were illegal, although soon after a Federal Police inquiry found that he had broken no Australian law.  One foreign minister bragged in his memoirs about lying to the Australian media, public and parliament about Assange receiving more consular assistance than any other Australian.  This untrue statement was made because Bob Carr was annoyed by the distress and advocacy efforts of Julian’s mother and his chosen punishment was printed countless times by every outlet.

But Bob Carr is due some credit. He has changed his mind, and has been a big enough person to admit that he was wrong and has since become an advocate for our government to act. So too has another former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. If only they had acted when they had power.

Australian government silence has been broken by many citizens actions over the years – demonstrators have scaled Parliament House, organised weekly vigils, got arrested attempting to occupy the UK consulate, marked his birthday, with the Greens consistent support finally being joined by others in the formation of the Bring Assange Home Parliamentary Group in October 2019, now 24 strong.  A petition has been submitted to our Parliament and as at April 2020 it had 390,000 signatures, the fourth largest petition to be tabled.

When WikiLeaks Editor in Chief Kristinn Hraffnson addressed Australia’s National Press Club in December 2019 he reminded journalists that Assange has been a card-carrying member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) as a journalist since 2009.  His union has spoken up for him too, including by writing to the UK High Commissioner and keeps issuing his press card. 

In May 2020, over 100 Australian politicians, writers and publishers, human rights advocates and legal professionals wrote a letter calling on the government to end its official silence.

For the very work that sees him isolated, ever thinner and at risk of Covid in a maximum security jail, Julian was presented with the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism in 2011. The citation for the award rings true today and is worth revisiting on the eve of his trial: 

“This year’s winner has shown a courageous and controversial commitment to the finest traditions of journalism: justice through transparency. WikiLeaks applied new technology to penetrate the inner workings of government to reveal an avalanche of inconvenient truths in a global publishing coup. Its revelations, from the way the war on terror was being waged, to diplomatic bastardry, high-level horse-trading and the interference in the domestic affairs of nations, have had an undeniable impact. This innovation could just as easily have been developed and nurtured by any of the world’s major publishers – but it wasn’t. Yet so many eagerly took advantage of the secret cables to create more scoops in a year than most journalists could imagine in a lifetime. While not without flaws, the Walkley Trustees believe that by designing and constructing a means to encourage whistleblowers, WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief Julian Assange took a brave, determined and independent stand for freedom of speech and transparency that has empowered people all over the world. And in the process, they have triggered a robust debate inside and outside the media about official secrecy, the public’s right to know and the future of journalism.”

In May 2020, over 100 Australian serving and former politicians, writers and publishers, human rights advocates and legal professionals wrote another letter to Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne calling on the government to end its official silence. They conveyed an understanding of diplomatic sensitivities given that the countries responsible for detaining and prosecuting Mr Assange are two of our closest allies. But, they asserted, one of the things that gives an alliance value is the ability to advocate directly in the interests of Australian citizens without such advocacy being mistaken for hostility. 

Julian Assange has sacrificed everything so that we can understand our world, its wars, its trade deals, and how governments, banks and the UN are rendered corrupt and compromised.

These letters came from a very wide range of views, accurately reflecting that concern for the well-being of Julian and the work of a free and open media, which transcends political loyalties. We received the same lines we’ve been hearing since 2012 about the provision of consular assistance and confidence in the British and US justice systems.

The tide is turning, but will it turn in time?

Since 2006 WikiLeaks has published well over 10 million documents. Often forgotten is that each one was provided by a whistleblower who trusted this platform to publish, and who sought reform of how political, corporate and media power elites operate. Each release has shared genuine official information about how governments, companies, banks, the UN, political parties, jailers, cults, private security firms, war planners and the media actually operate when they think no one is looking. Let’s remember how many remarkable releases the organisation has provided, used as evidence in court cases, freeing prisoners and exposing scandals, torture, murder and surveillance for which redress is only possible when the wrongdoing is dragged into the light.

Julian Assange is not perfect — who of us is? But he has sacrificed everything so that we can understand our world, its wars, its trade deals, and how governments, banks and the UN are rendered corrupt and compromised. That is precisely why he is so dangerous. Not because of his mistakes, but his successes.

Monash University Publishing