Wikileaks is bringing together some strange coalitions in Australia, individuals with different political views who recognise Julian Assange as a man who has dared challenge the establishment in ways rarely, if ever, seen. Of course the powerful hate him. But truths aren’t so easily dismissed. Only those who care so deeply about maintaining society’s status-quo won’t be moved to support this paradigm shifting idea.
The high point of the week on television was Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd flapping his elbows like wings and saying: “Quack, quack, quack.”
He was, of course, illustrating his claim that US embassy criticism of him in the WikiLeak cables is “water off a duck’s back”.
What else could the former prime minister do? It was either laugh or cry.
Miranda Devine in the Murdoch press:
The official fury unleashed against Assange is largely about the embarrassment WikiLeaks has created for diplomats.
But the United States is lucky it is Assange controlling the information, because he does abide by some sort of virtuous moral code.
Julia Gillard is facing a revolt from MPs in her left-wing parliamentary faction, enraged at the treatment of Julian Assange.
The MPs are demanding the government stop treating Mr Assange as a criminal and protect his rights as an Australian citizen and whistleblower.
A large number of MPs have spoken to The Weekend Australian to express grave concerns at the language ministers and the Prime Minister are using in relation to Mr Assange.
Laurie Ferguson, a friend and factional colleague of Ms Gillard who was dumped as parliamentary secretary for multicultural affairs and settlement services, told The Weekend Australian the government had overreacted to the WikiLeaks release of secret US documents. He said the information that had been released was crucial to democracy and exposing the truth.
“It hasn’t been borne out that people have been endangered by this information,” Mr Ferguson said.
“On the other side of the ledger, I think it is important that the world is informed on how intense the Saudis are about Iran’s nuclear program and, for instance, that some members of the federal Labor Party caucus are so heavily engaged in briefing another nation.”
Mr Ferguson took a veiled swipe at Sports Minister Mark Arbib, saying he was glad it was now well-known that the right-wing Labor frontbencher was a secret source for the US government.
His comments came as Attorney-General Robert McClelland was yesterday unable to explain how Mr Assange had broken Australian law.
Mr McClelland indicated an Australian Federal Police investigation into whether WikiLeaks had committed a criminal act could go on for more than a year.
The government has come under fire after Ms Gillard appeared to pass judgment on Mr Assange, declaring that “the foundation stone of this WikiLeaks issue is an illegal act”.
One senior left-wing MP said, on the condition of anonymity, that the government had taken a “harsh” line on Mr Assange and had “angered” its left-wing base internally and in the community.
Another said Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd had “got it right” on the WikiLeaks case while Ms Gillard had “messed it up”.
Mr Rudd this week took aim at US security levels surrounding the handling of classified confidential information, rather than Mr Assange. He said those who originally leaked the documents were legally liable.
The left-wing Labor MP who heads the economics caucus committee, Sharon Grierson, said she had sympathy for Mr Assange because he believed in freedom of information and the public interest test being applied.
“It’s terribly important to keep asserting that Australians will always and do always look after their citizens,” Ms Grierson said. “They have rights and protection under the law, and we would all want to see those applied in that case.”
Ms Grierson said the world had embraced the open, globalised flow of information, and had to deal with its consequences. “We now have to find ways to respond to that which are reasonable, not irrational in any way,” she said.
West Australian Labor MP Melissa Parke said the Swedish rape charges against Mr Assange were unusual and he should not be treated as a criminal.
“I am concerned about the statements in the United States that Julian Assange or his family should be subjected to physical violence, and I strongly condemn them,” Ms Parke said.
“The charges from Sweden sound highly unusual on the basis of the information available, and I expect the British courts to take a long hard look at that before any decision on extradition is made.
“As to the actions of WikiLeaks and whether they have broken any laws, the fact is we don’t know. I think it is therefore wrong for anyone to suggest Julian Assange is a criminal.”
Hundreds of people in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne protested yesterday against the treatment of Mr Assange.
Criminal lawyer Rob Stary told a Melbourne rally the Australian government was a “sycophant” of the US.
He compared Mr Assange to fellow Australians David Hicks and Jack Thomas, saying their conviction on terrorism charges were helped by the government’s “propaganda machine”.
In Brisbane, lawyer Peter Russo, who defended Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef against failed terrorism charges, told a rally it was important to understand that the real issue at stake in the WikiLeaks case was freedom. “It’s not only the freedom of the individual, it’s the freedom of all of us.”
Activist group GetUp is buying advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Times newspapers defending WikiLeaks. More than 50,000 people have signed the petition circulated by the group, which ran a vocal campaign against the treatment of Hicks.
Queensland MP Graham Perrett said he was a strong supporter of whistleblowing and transparency. “However I’m unsure that any indiscriminate mass release of information is going to ensure no lives are put at risk,” he said.
It was the government’s job to ensure Australian citizens were given full legal protection, Mr Perrett said.
“I would suggest we need to look after all of our citizens abroad, irrespective of what they are charged with,” he said.
“We must preserve the rule of law, and a fair trial is an essential part of this.”
Mr McClelland yesterday stressed it was not his responsibility to determine guilt or innocence.
He said the Australian Federal Police had been asked to examine whether any Australian laws had been breached by Mr Assange. But asked to clarify the government’s position, Mr McClelland repeated his assertion that it would be illegal in Australia to obtain or distribute classified documents.
“I said by way of analogy that if . . . serving military personnel or officer of the commonwealth had access to a similar database in Australia and took confidential national security classified information off that website and revealed it, I have no doubt it would raise issues of potential criminality.”
Asked about the AFP inquiries into the case, Mr McClelland said it took a long time for the investigation into leaks by public servant Godwin Grech to reach a conclusion, and people needed to take a “reality check”.
And Paul Kelly, the Serious Murdoch hack, writes in the Australian that closeness between Australia and America (who is fellating whom here?) is jolly healthy for all concerned:
Nobody should be surprised that the US embassy was speaking regularly to Labor figures such as NSW powerbroker Senator Mark Arbib, former minister Bob McMullan and MP Michael Danby.
It is a long tradition. The intimacy of political exchanges between the nations helps make the relationship special and has been facilitated by annual meetings of the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue.
In past decades the Americans had close ties with Bob Hawke, Kim Beazley and former senator Stephen Loosley. Rudd himself was a valued intimate of high-placed US officials in Washington when Labor was in opposition. This week Loosley told The Australian he had briefed the US nearly 20 years ago to expect Paul Keating to replace Hawke as PM. Insights into key events in domestic politics on both sides are integral to such exchanges.
You can lay money, however, these cables are mild compared with cables from the US embassy when Mark Latham was ALP leader. This provoked the greatest period of US alarm about Australia for decades. Concern about the damage Latham might perpetrate resonated at high levels in Washington, and Rudd and Beazley were involved in talks with US officials on how Latham could best be managed.
The practice of close ties between Labor’s right wing and the US tended to be overlooked during the Howard era given the media’s obsession about the links between John Howard and George W. Bush. That Arbib reassured the Americans about Julia Gillard is hardly a surprise. It is interesting, however, that he told them he backed the Iraq military commitment. The tradition of political intimacy between the ALP right wing and the US has passed to a new generation; witness Chris Bowen, Stephen Conroy, Bill Shorten and Arbib, each of them increasingly wired into US networks. These exchanges, of course, are not just one way. Australia has had a succession of Washington ambassadors with excellent inside contacts; witness John McCarthy, Andrew Peacock, Michael Thawley, Dennis Richardson and now Beazley. One of the consequences is that Howard expected Bush to become president in 2001 and had an agenda ready to greet him. In the context, talk about Arbib being an “agent of influence” or a US spy is naive and ignorant of how Australia-US relations are conducted.