Sanctuary in the Senate. Assange’s political plan
Professor John Keane from the University of Sydney recently spent an afternoon and evening inside the Ecuador Embassy in London with Julian Assange. This is an edited extract of his report on that interview, published in full this morning on The Conversation.
Tea and coffee arrive. We reach for the Tim Tams. Our conversation grows intense. For several years, Julian Assange tells me, he’s been intent on entering formal politics. A new WikiLeaks Party is soon to be launched.
He’s sure it will easily attract the minimum of 500 paid-up members required by law. The party will field candidates for the Senate, probably in several states. And, yes, Assange is certain to be among them, probably as a candidate in Victoria.
Assange bounces through the probable scenarios. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa will be re-elected. This will ramp up pressure on the Swedish authorities, whose case against him is “falling apart”, with the two women plaintiffs looking for a way to extricate themselves from the protracted messy drama. If he wins a seat in the Senate, he says, the US Department of Justice won’t want to spark an international diplomatic row.
The planet’s biggest military empire will back down. The Cameron government will follow suit, says Assange, otherwise “the political costs of the current standoff will be higher still”. So the obvious question: what are the chances of that happening? Can dare claim victory in his personal battle for political freedom?
What he has in mind has never before been attempted in Australian federal politics. Eugene Debs ran for the US presidency from prison (in 1920). Sinn Fein MP Bobby Sands was elected to Westminster while on hunger strike (in 1981). Under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi won a general election (in 1990). There are plenty of similar examples, so why shouldn’t Julian Assange attempt to do the same, and in style?
The technical objections aren’t real, he says. He’s no traitor to his country, and most definitely not under the “acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience or adherence to a foreign power” (section 44 of the Australian constitution). Truth is he was let down by a gutless Gillard government and forced into political asylum, under threat of extradition. “I’m safe here inside the embassy walls,” he mocks, “protected by more than a dozen police, including one stationed night and day right outside my bathroom window.”
His eyes twinkle, before laying into those who insist that the federal electoral laws are against him, that he’s ineligible because candidates must already be registered to vote. “That’s untrue”, he notes.“The Act specifies only that candidates must in principle be qualified to become a voter”. Assange is right, but much turns on whether his preferred strategy of registering as an overseas voter will work. He’s been overseas for less than three years (he was last in Australia in June 2010) and intends to return home within six years – that’s why he’s just applied to be on the electoral roll in Victoria.
That leaves two final snags. If victorious, some advisors speculate, Assange might need to take oath before the Governor-General. For this to happen he’d have to be set free, naturally, but it could also be done, “for the first time ever, by video link”. Whatever the situation, continued confinement, he says, would breach the rule that he must take up his Senate seat within two months. “In that case, the Senate could vote to evict me. But that would trigger a big political row. Australians probably wouldn’t swallow it. They’ve learned a lesson from the controversial dismissal of Gough Whitlam.”
In the most recent UMR poll, Assange tells me, around 27% of Australian citizens say they’ll vote for him. That should be enough to slingshot him from the Ecuador embassy to Canberra. I’m naturally curious about the kind of political party WikiLeaks will launch. “The party will combine a small, centralised leadership with maximum grass roots involvement and support. By relying on decentralised Wikipedia-style, user-generated structures, it will do without apparatchiks. The party will be incorruptible and ideologically united.”
I flinch at his mention of ideological unity. He explains that the party will display iron self-discipline in its support for maximum “inclusiveness”. It will be bound together by unswerving commitment to the core principles of civic courage nourished by “understanding” and “truthfulness” and the “free flow of information”. It will practise in politics what WikiLeaks has done in the field of information. It will be digital, and stay digital. Those who don’t accept its transparency principles will be told to “rack off”. That’s the ideological unity bit.
Assange knows his fate will be decided not by legal niceties, or diplomatic rulebooks, but by politics. He’s aware that in the great dramas to come, nothing should be ruled out. Parliamentary politics will involve permanent fire-fighting, but unflappable he sounds. “I’ve had to deal with the FBI, the British press and more than a few rank functionaries. The Australian press are decent by comparison. No doubt the Australian Tax Office will show an interest in our campaign. Old enemies may make an appearance.”
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