How Julian Assange’s Senate Bid Will Change Australian Politics
Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, December 2012 © Luke MacGregor / Reuters
On 23 April, John Shipton, an architect and one-time anti-war activist, lodged a sheaf of 540 signatures at the offices of the Australian Electoral Commission in Canberra, and a new party entered the fray. Now the party has a head office – in hipster-central Brunswick Street, Fitzroy – an hourglass logo and Senate candidates set to run in at least three states. There’s a lot of it about these days. Up north, Bob Katter’s Australian Party threatens to take territory from the Nationals; on the Sunshine Coast, in white-shoe valley, Clive Palmer’s United Party promises to provide rich entertainment right up till 14 September. Like these outfits, the WikiLeaks Party is focused on a charismatic figure – one who, unlike Bob and Clive, won’t be seen out on the hustings.
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The WikiLeaks Party has the distinction of being the first Australian party to have a leader not merely in exile, but in asylum. Campaigning by video link, Skype and encrypted email, Julian Assange hopes to win a seat in the Senate from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has now spent nearly a year. He is claiming protection against an extradition order to Sweden, on sex-crime allegations – an extradition he believes would be a prelude to onward delivery to the US on espionage charges, stemming from WikiLeaks’ release of a quarter of a million US diplomatic cables.
Although the party is running a serious Senate ticket, it’s Assange’s spot on the Victorian list that is at the heart of the campaign. Shipton, Assange’s biological father, has helped out with WikiLeaks for years. Assange’s mother, the redoubtable Christine, is also involved. With a reported membership of 1500 and counting, the party has every intention of becoming a movement. Its leaders are spruiking figures collected by research company UMR, suggesting the vote for Assange and the party might be as high as 26%. Cooler heads doubt this, but the party doesn’t need anything like that level of support if it can create a series of interlocking preference deals. At the 2010 federal election, John Madigan, the missing-in-action candidate from the revived Democratic Labor Party (DLP), took the sixth Senate spot in Victoria with 2.3% of the primary vote. There is every possibility that a high-profile candidate such as Assange, who has already gained millions of dollars’ worth of publicity for free, could surpass that to secure a virtual place on the red leather benches. Should he do so, the Australian government will be in a bind.
From 28 November 2010, when WikiLeaks, with the Guardian, New York Times and other publications, released the first of the “cablegate” archives, the Gillard government saw its role as siding with the US, rather than protecting the rights of one of its own citizens. US politicians and right-wing pundits openly called for Assange’s assassination; Vice-President Joe Biden described him as a “high-tech terrorist”: given the Obama administration’s record of assassinating those it deems terrorists, this was no idle chatter.
Australia’s response, via then attorney-general Robert McClelland, was to announce that the federal police were looking for any Australian laws that Assange might have broken. It turned out Assange was under investigation by the Swedes after two women alleged some non-consensual behaviour within consensual sexual encounters. In February 2011, he was fighting extradition to Sweden in the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court. He was given standard consular assistance. In June 2012, foreign minister Bob Carr went out of his way to deny that Assange was under any threat of prosecution by the US, despite journalist Philip Dorling having revealed statements by the Australian embassy in Washington that indicated media reports of a secret grand jury charged with considering indictments against Assange were “likely true”. Should the returns on the night of 14 September produce a Senator-elect Assange, then such blithe evasions will no longer suffice. Any threats made will be against an elected representative of the Australian people: the insult will not be to one individual, but to our sovereignty.
This is unquestionably one of Assange’s major aims in making a run. What has always marked off WikiLeaks in the hacker- and information-led political uprising of recent years has been a greater savvy about the ways in which old and new forms of power intersect. In a slim volume of writing from 2006, which sets out the theory of action behind WikiLeaks, Assange outlined government as a conspiracy relying on monopolies of information. Small leaks – the “smoking guns” beloved by mainstream media – make no difference to this structure. Massive leaks change the relations between rulers and ruled decisively. The key is to push state power into a situation in which it cannot not act.
Beyond making the US pursuit of Assange problematic – an ambition shared by the party’s principal figures, many of whom came out of a group called the WikiLeaks Australian Citizens Alliance – the party has a set of core policies related to free speech and open society, including demands for whistleblower-protection legislation, journalist shield laws and privacy protection (for those outside power). However, it faces the same problems as other small, specific-issue parties with a real chance – what to do about the myriad policies it would have to vote on should it gain one or two seats. If the WikiLeaks Party does succeed, it might well end up holding the balance of power between a surging Coalition and the de facto alliance (on most issues) of Labor and the Greens.
A supporter of Julian Assange outside the Ecuadorian embassy, June 2012 © Lefteris Pitarakis / AAP
What position will WikiLeaks take on industrial relations, macroeconomics, social policy? Asked about this, Samantha Castro, the party’s Melbourne campaign manager and co-founder, has said that the party will develop a full slate of policies over time, rather than simply bud them off pro forma. That is wise, but it may also lead to complexity in the future: although Assange is seen by many as a standard-issue anti-American under false cover, he is no knee-jerk leftist. His distrust of the state is so great as to ill dispose him to the large corporate–state entities that make left-ish social programs possible. After all, WikiLeaks sprang out of the “cypherpunks” group – the mailing list and network of ’90s hackers, alarmed by an increasingly surveilled global state – and more than a few of those have seen their cyber-anarchism lead them towards the right. The WikiLeaks Party’s campaign director is Greg Barns, a one-time John Howard staffer, who in 2002 was disendorsed by the Liberals in Tasmania over his views on asylum-seeker policy. Barns’s position on social issues has always been left-liberal, but he remains oriented to laissez-faire policies in matters economic. Yet the majority of those who have flocked to join the WikiLeaks Party come from groups like the Occupy movement, whose leftism is undoubted. Should the party fall short at the election, all of this will be a dead letter. Success will bring with it some interesting conversations.
Most discommoded by the rise of the WikiLeaks Party would be the Greens party, which for some years has enjoyed being the principal champion of civil liberties and political dissent in Australia. In 2003, Bob Brown and Kerry Nettle were the only MPs to protest the Howard government’s fawning hosting of the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, and the turning over of parliament to Chinese state security when he addressed it. Two years later, the Greens defended Chen Yonglin, the dissident whose defection proved an embarrassment to the Howard government; and the party defended Assange, applying the blowtorch to the government for its failure to stand up for the rights of an Australian journalist and whistleblower. Having seen its national primary vote increase (from 1% in 1996 to 11.8% in 2010, with many recent polls suggesting it remains steady at 10–11%) and its representation grow (from two senators in 1996 to the current nine and an MP, with the possibility of heading towards a dozen or more after the election) the party is in for the long haul. Unlike the Australian Democrats, to which it is sometimes compared, it is part of a global movement, and has a solid base in sections of the “knowledge class”. Its continued success rests on getting the sixth place in each Senate race, based on a raw vote, and a series of complex preference deals. It is accustomed to being pipped at the post by right-wing parties, such as Family First and the DLP, often with the assistance of the ALP Right. Competition in the form of the WikiLeaks Party represents a new, and not very welcome, threat. In public the party has been polite about it. Scott Ludlam, the Western Australian senator who has spent more time on the Assange brief than most, stated that the Greens party:
welcomes the WikiLeaks party ... The old political parties have effectively closed ranks against Julian Assange, ignoring the revelations of war crimes. If these issues get fresh currency by Julian’s Senate run I can only see that as a good thing.
In private, some of the Greens’ backroom people are seething. Their frustration is understandable. They’re now in a position to cement themselves as a third-party force, but rising micro-parties may turn their vote-getting chaotic. Yet the Greens party is not without dilemmas, having policies both libertarian and managerialist. It has defended not only Assange but the likes of Jonathan Moylan, the political hoaxer who sent out a fake press release from coal investors ANZ Whitehaven, thus bringing its brown-energy policies front and centre, and also sending ANZ’s share price tumbling. The Greens have also backed Labor’s new human rights and anti-discrimination bill, which criminalises “insult” and “offence” in public speech. The contradiction is obvious: WikiLeaks’ insistence on radical openness can only be seen as legitimate political action if you believe in a Jeffersonian democracy, in which all speech but direct incitement to specific violence is permitted. The Greens have yet to work out a way to square having a seat at the table of government with their dissident civil libertarian policies.
It is a particularly difficult position to be in as it becomes clear that various forces – states, corporations, information networks – are converging into a new power complex. The point made by Assange and three co-writers in his 2012 book Cypherpunks is that we are living through a crisis period in which a bid for total control and surveillance is being made – the “hackerati” have been on to this idea for some time. At this year’s Chaos Communication Congress, the annual gathering of the global hacker scene in Germany, all talk was of unparalleled levels of control, centred around the US National Security Agency’s new data-collection centre in Bluffdale, Utah – a facility that will be capable of catching and recording every form of electronic communication for a century. The talk was also of a response: the wide distribution of encryption software, such as the Tor system, which makes it possible to send uncrackable messages between private persons. Much of this distribution is already being done by way of informal teaching sessions in which experienced hackers teach encryption to neophytes. These “CryptoParties”, a concept developed by Melbourne cyber-activist Asher Wolf, have spread rapidly around the world. The WikiLeaks Party in part fulfils the need for a dissident libertarian party, challenging convergences of power on behalf of average citizens.
Problem is, there are already two small local libertarian parties – the Australian Sex Party, which grew out of the pro-porn Eros Association, and the newer Pirate Party Australia. Pirate parties – dedicated to defending open-source exchange and net neutrality (the idea that there shouldn’t be a “two-speed” net, with a fast lane for the elite) and committed to the idea that the digital revolution should transform our idea of economy and citizenship – have sprung up across the world since 2006. They began in Sweden, established to defend “the Pirate Bay”, a BitTorrent site whose founders had been prosecuted by the Swedish government for copyright violations, as the site was mainly used for sharing movies, TV and music. The Swedish Pirate Party quickly gained seats in the European parliament; there are now a dozen or so Pirate parties with members in national and local parliaments. It’s a global movement, holding international conferences, capable of making a collective response to challenges, rather than being isolated and defeated. Indeed, one of the reasons that Julian Assange went to Sweden in 2010 was to make a deal with the Pirates, whereby they would host the WikiLeaks site on their ultra-secure servers.
The Australian Pirate Party, established in 2009, has been measured in its reaction to the WikiLeaks Party, stating that it hopes the party “will apply the same transparency to their internal processes as the Pirate Party does”. Had Assange run as a Pirate, it might have been to the advantage of both, but it would almost certainly have been unworkable in the end: Assange is not a team player. The WikiLeaks Party may triumph, not least because it seems capable of drawing out a dissident vote beyond those who currently identify with the inner-city-based Greens. When, in 1989, the International Subversives, a hacker group of which Assange was a member, launched the “WANK Worm” virus to attack global military networks, they made sure the last thing that terminal users saw before their computers froze was a quote from Midnight Oil: “You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war.” Peter Garrett and the Oils played then the role that Assange does now – they were dissident, but also recognisably of the suburbs; they appealed to a group who knew that something at a very basic level was wrong. In the ’80s, the issue was winnable nuclear war. Now, it’s the rise of huge power networks cut off from the public good.
Many analysts believe the WikiLeaks Party’s vote will hit 3–4% come September. From that, if it makes good enough deals, it may win a seat. Too promiscuous in its deal-making, however, and it may well have another effect: elevating to a commanding position some loopy single-issue party that will rule the roost for years to come.
Whether Assange or his associates care deeply about that, or should do, remains to be seen. Labor and the Coalition are monolithic in regards to civil liberties, openness and the like. In some ways, with its firewalls and legislative fixes, Labor is worse, and there is no compelling reason for WikiLeaks to be concerned as to whether its electoral effort might ultimately advantage Tony Abbott. Julian Assange has one political virtue that many around him lack – an appetite for audacity, for the radical act that changes everything. Few political professionals think that this ramshackle group of libertarians, hacks and marginals, led from an embassy in a terrace house in London, can pull it off. Then again, no one thought that Assange, a reformed hacker turned science student, could launch a global dissident organisation and throw the world into uproar, all from the University of Melbourne maths students’ common room.