It’s Time for Australia to Demand Julian Assange’s Release

As Australian journalist Julian Assange faces the hell of extradition, it is more urgent and necessary than ever for the Australian government to intervene on his behalf.

Julian Assange at a press conference in London in August 2014. (David G. Silvers / Cancillería del Ecuador via Flickr)

To no one’s surprise, UK home secretary Priti Patel has rubber-stamped an order to extradite Julian Assange to the United States, where the WikiLeaks founder faces up to 175 years in prison on a variety of espionage charges.

US marshals won’t be arriving just yet, however, as Assange’s legal team will launch further appeals through the British courts and possibly the European Court of Human Rights. Assange’s family and supporters have also expressed hope that Australia’s newly elected Labor prime minister Anthony Albanese will intervene in the case.

The Australian government has a poor track record when it comes to offering meaningful support to Assange. Its responsibility to do so, as the Australian journalist faces the hell of extradition, is more urgent and necessary than ever.

A New Mood

So far, the Albanese government has shown itself, at least in word, to be more supportive of Assange than its predecessors. As opposition leader in late 2021, Albanese said that he did “not see what purpose” was served by the “ongoing pursuit of Mr Assange.” Elsewhere he has said that, “You don’t prosecute journalists for doing their job.” Considering that the US prosecution relies on denying Assange First Amendment press protections, this clear designation of Assange as a journalist is significant.

Shortly after Patel’s decision, Albanese told the press that he stood by his earlier comments, and Attorney General Mark Dreyfus and Foreign Minister Penny Wong released a statement that read, “Mr Assange’s case has dragged on for too long and . . . it should be brought to a close. We will continue to express this view to the governments of the United Kingdom and United States.” Dreyfus made similar comments while in opposition in 2020.

These sorts of comments are in marked contrast with those of former prime minister Scott Morrison, who had nothing to say in support of Assange. He even went so far as to suggest at one point that Assange should “face the music.” In an April 2022 Senate estimates hearing, Morrison’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, confirmed that neither she nor anyone from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had recently communicated with the UK government about Assange. She also acknowledged that no one had talked to the United States about recent reports that suggested the CIA considered assassinating Assange in 2017.

The record of Australia’s last Labor government isn’t much better. In 2010, Julia Gillard claimed that WikiLeaks’ acquisition and publication of confidential documents was illegal; when challenged about it, however, she couldn’t identify which laws had been broken. Credit card companies nonetheless made use of such claims as a justification to block donations to WikiLeaks. Gillard’s attorney general also reportedly considered canceling Assange’s passport.

Support for Assange has, however, grown in the Australian parliament more generally. Thanks in part to the influx of Greens and independent MPs in the 2022 election, a “friends of Julian Assange” parliamentary group has swelled in size. Although its ranks include less than 20 percent of the federal parliament, the group has enough high-profile members to put the screws to Albanese, should they choose to — especially if high-profile Labor figures such as Kevin Rudd and Bob Carr add to the pressure on Albanese, not just post mildly worded communiqués via Twitter.

Loud-hailer Diplomacy and its Discontents

Albanese would like the public to believe that serious negotiations are going on behind closed doors. An unnamed federal government source recently told journalists that Assange’s case had been raised with senior US officials, but when asked in late May if he’d brought up Assange with Joe Biden at a recent security-alliance meeting, Albanese responded that “not all foreign affairs is best done with the loud-hailer.”

Time will tell if Albanese’s poker face conceals a good hand, or a willingness to play it against Australia’s closest ally. Unfortunately, time isn’t something that Assange has to spare right now.

This is not to suggest that Albanese’s aversion to loud-hailer diplomacy is misguided. In 2015, Tony Abbott warned that Australia “would make our displeasure known” if Indonesia executed two Australians facing execution for drug trafficking. Abbott’s statements were widely reported in the Indonesian media — where they were criticized as threatening and disrespectful of Indonesia’s sovereignty. This triggered a massive nationalist backlash that made acquiescing to Australian demands very politically costly for Indonesian president Joko Widodo. Both men were eventually executed.

Speaking to Jacobin, former diplomat Bruce Haigh agrees that loud-hailer diplomacy is rarely effective, but says that Albanese nonetheless needs to keep the topic of Assange in the public realm, albeit in a tone of “restraint, logic, and firmness, but without any hint of bullying”:

If we were to be serious about springing Assange, we should put our points publicly while offering to negotiate privately. We should publicly detail if there has been a lack of response to our arguments or points and express our frustration. The government should be the vehicle for keeping the issue in the public domain.

In Haigh’s view, it’s doubtful that negotiations are taking place, citing the “completely negative” attitude of this government so far.

The United States vs Julian Assange

If Albanese is actively negotiating with the United States to secure Assange’s release, it won’t be an easy task. Both the US government and security apparatus appear utterly committed to extradition. Consider how, within an hour of Ecuador revoking Assange’s asylum and suspending his citizenship in April 2019, the United States had submitted its extradition request to the UK and unsealed its secret indictment against him.

A recently released documentary on the campaign to free Assange, Ithaka, hints at the level of vitriol toward the WikiLeaks founder within some segments of the US government. A lobbyist hired by Stella Assange to press Donald Trump for a pardon was reportedly called a traitor and met with death threats against himself and his family. The lobbyist said that although many in Trump’s inner circle supported the pardon, they were told by senior national security figures that “any mitigation of [Assange’s] sentence is only a matter for national security.”

Unfortunately, it’s not just the national security apparatus who is arrayed against Assange. Many in the Democratic Party establishment want revenge for WikiLeaks’ publication of a damaging series of emails from Hillary Clinton and her staff, which they claim secured Trump’s victory in 2016. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) subsequently launched an unsuccessful lawsuit that accused WikiLeaks of coconspiring with the Trump campaign and Russia to steal the 2016 election.

The lawsuit suggests that many in the Democratic Party establishment share the view of former CIA director and Trump secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who infamously referred to WikiLeaks as a “a non-state hostile intelligence service.” Joe Biden — who likened Assange to a “high-tech terrorist” when he was vice president in 2010 — has provided no indication that he is more sympathetic to Assange than either the DNC or Pompeo.

Unfortunately, maintaining a good relationship with the same people who are baying for Assange’s blood is the central pillar of Australian foreign policy, at least in both the Labor and Liberal parties. “Both major parties support the American alliance at the cost of any other thing,” former diplomat and onetime WikiLeaks Party Senate candidate Alison Broinowski told Jacobin.

This foreign policy orientation was recently reaffirmed through the AUKUS security agreement, which ties Australia to the American war machine for many years to come. In a recent article, Broinowski paints the security pact as a massive win for US and UK arms manufacturers, who will supply Australia with increased quantities of sophisticated military equipment, but a defeat for anyone who hoped that Australia might abandon “our unquestioning willingness — eagerness, even — to fight in America’s expeditionary wars.”

Although AUKUS ultimately represents Australia’s fealty to the United States, Broinowski identifies in it a possible bargaining chip in negotiations over Assange:

Albanese could go to Biden and say, “Look, we’ve signed this thing. We’re going to put our country in debt for decades to buy this stuff from you. We are doing this as part of your strategy for maintaining US supremacy. We are backing you on this, so we deserve to be cut some slack here.”