The Albanese government’s politicking on Assange has done many things. It’s provided attention, where they’d been a lack under Morrison. It’s given hope to supporters, even if that’s fast dwindling. And it’s bestowed the PM and cabinet with a justice-seeking, rights-upholding sheen.
Yet, one vital addition it’s failed to produce is any progress in seeing Australian journalist and publisher Julian Assange released from his more than a decade-long pursuit on the part of the White House, with the UK government as accomplice.
The last sitting day of federal parliament until May saw Penny Wong reiterate her government’s position, stating that she’d “personally expressed” to the US and the UK that the WikiLeaks founder’s case “has dragged on too long”, which she confirmed is Labor’s official stance in February.
And as she did before the press two months ago, Wong again suggested last week that the government’s “enough is enough” position on Assange is as far as it can go on the matter as intervening in “another country’s legal or court processes” is not a possibility.
But as is well known, to abide by Wong’s assertion that to interfere in the Assange extradition case currently underway in the UK would undermine “the rule of law”, is to completely ignore the blatant travesties of justice involved in Julian’s proceedings at every step.
Greens Senator David Shoebridge quizzed Wong in the chamber on 30 March, as to whether Albanese had broached the subject of Assange’s case being brought to an end, whilst the PM was in San Diego on 14 March for the announcement of the details of the AUKUS security arrangement.
“I understand that there is strong interest in the case, that there is a depth of community sentiment, and we have made clear publicly, before the election and since, that the government’s view is that Mr Assange’s case has dragged on too long and should be brought to a close,” Wong responded.
The foreign minister then appealed to Shoebridge, as a lawyer, that he understand that with “the separation of powers… a court has to determine the legal process” involved in Assange’s case, rather than have politicians interfering in the judicial matter.
The Greens senator then asked why, considering the importance Albanese has placed on “quiet diplomacy” when dealing with Assange, he hadn’t taken the opportunity afforded by the AUKUS announcement to raise the matter directly with US president Joe Biden and UK PM Rishi Sunak.
“I again make the point that there is a legal process which is in accordance with the tradition of the separation of powers, which I regard as an important part of democracy,” Wong continued, and then dashed all hope by stating that it’s “not something that the Australian government can resolve”.
To be seen to be acting
Wong initially exercised the “rule of law” excuse as to why the Albanese government can’t bring about any advance is securing an end to the persecution of Julian Assange during a February press conference, as she outlined that in all “three countries we’re discussing, the rule of law prevails”.
Next Tuesday marks four years since Assange was taken into custody by the UK government, which has seen him detained in London’s Belmarsh prison ever since, as the US attempts to extradite him over having published thousands of leaked classified US government files early last decade.
Following Assange’s arrest, then Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said that while the Australian citizen would receive consular assistance, he’d receive “no special treatment”.
But in stark contrast to this, leader of the Labor opposition Anthony Albanese was one of only 36 parliamentarians who signed a petition calling for the release of the Townsville-born son in October 2019, throwing his support behind the Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group.
And in response to a question put to him in parliament in February 2021, Albanese sparked rising hope as he stated his now well-known phrase “enough is enough” in regard to the Assange case. But he also reinforced negative opinions when he said that he has no sympathy for Julian’s actions.
However, doubts about the legitimacy of Albanese’s assertions in regard to securing Assange’s release began to rise soon after he took the office, when the new PM stated at a 31 May 2022 press conference that his position “is that not all foreign affairs is best done with the loud hailer”.
Since then, Labor’s position has been that it’s quietly calling on the US to consider bringing Assange’s case to an end, and a year on, we’re still riding the hope of enough is enough, while obtained government documents suggest Canberra’s been contemplating Julian’s extradition and trial.
Undermining the rule of law
Wong’s assertion that the Albanese government’s hands are tied in regard to intervening in the Assange case, as it would undermine the rule of law, is full of holes, as the entire extradition process has been fraught with extralegal manoeuvres.
Indeed, the legal action commenced with the Trump administration claiming extraterritoriality as it reached out across international borders to arrest Assange, via proxy, in a foreign jurisdiction in April 2019, over alleged crimes that took place on the soil of another country.
The initial 2021 UK court ruling was against extradition based on Assange’s worsening mental state. However, a High Court appeal overturned this decision based on US assurances that implied it wouldn’t subject Julian to its most extreme detention conditions, unless it’s later warranted.
And then UK home secretary Priti Patel greenlighted US extradition last June, despite public revelations around part of the US indictment being based on lies, and that the Trump White House had surveilled Assange and his lawyers, and considered kidnapping and even assassinating him.
Assange’s legal team is now appealing the decision to extradite to the UK High Court and the European Court of Human Rights.
A glimmer of hope
The last week saw renewed hopes sparked, as it was announced on 1 April, that new Australian High Commissioner to the UK, Stephen Smith, would be the first office-bearer to visit Assange in Belmarsh maximum-security gaol.
Smith made the visit, which Assange had agreed to, on Wednesday at the request of Julian’s father, John Shipton, who considered the visit would draw Australian government attention to the deteriorating state his son finds himself in after four years inside.
Doctors for Assange has repeatedly warned key politicians in the UK and in this country that the Australian’s health has worsened to the point that the globe is now witnessing the “slow-motion execution of this award-winning journalist, arguably the foremost publisher of our time”.
While former senator Rex Patrick summed up the current situation best when he said that whilst the High Commissioner visit was welcomed, it would have been “much better if, on instructions from” Albanese, Smith went to UK home secretary Suella Braverman and “pressed her to end the extradition proceedings”.