Very soft diplomacy

Parliament backs a call for Julian Assange to be returned home, as the WikiLeaks founder prepares to face a UK court again next week

In a bold move for a client state, the federal parliament this week voted in support of a motion brought by independent MP Andrew Wilkie calling for the extradition proceedings of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange to come to a close. The motion, which passed on Wednesday 86 to 42, expressed the importance of allowing Assange to be released from prison and return home to Australia. “The vote today is the biggest demonstration yet that Mr Assange’s incarceration is unjust, and once again demonstrates the widespread support for him in the halls of Parliament House,” Wilkie said. “The US must recognise the weight of Australia’s political support and abandon the extradition proceedings.” The parliamentary motion comes as the UK’s High Court prepares for a two-day hearing next week, which will decide whether Assange can appeal his extradition to the United States.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, trying to straddle the fine line between appeal and appeasement, said he hoped the situation could be “resolved amicably”. “It’s not up to Australia to interfere in the legal processes of other countries, but it is appropriate for us to put our very strong view that those countries need to take into account the need for this to be concluded,” said Albanese. “Regardless of where people stand, this thing cannot just go on and on and on indefinitely.” 

The motion was a straight-up-and-down attempt to signal support, through the parliament, for an Australian citizen who is locked up overseas for revealing the truth about another misguided American military intervention in the Middle East. But it was too much for the Opposition, which refused to back the motion (with the exception of Liberal MP Bridget Archer, who crossed the floor). This is despite the fact that Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has previously indicated support for an end to Assange’s detention.

In May of last year, Dutton spoke of his concern for Assange “at an individual level”. It was an unlikely tone for the leader of the Opposition, but one that makes more sense in hindsight, given that his comments were made just prior to the release of the final report of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme. Paying lip service to the importance of mental health was the flavour of the month, for a time. 

Even Barnaby Joyce, having spent the week generating headlines, abstained from the vote despite being a firm supporter of Assange’s release. (Joyce was a member of a bipartisan delegation that travelled to Washington last year to press his cause.) It seems that whenever the Coalition is presented with an opportunity to be on the right side of history, it goes out of its way to do the opposite. 

Recent reports from the WikiLeaks founder’s lawyers have indicated that Assange’s health continues to deteriorate as he faces the possibility of charges in the United States that could see him sentenced to 175 years’ imprisonment. He has been in the high-security Belmarsh Prison since 2019, having previously spent seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London while trying to seek asylum in the South American country.

Wilkie stated the case for Assange’s release most clearly, telling parliament: “If Mr Assange is extradited to the US, it would be a direct attack on media freedom, as it would set a frightening precedent for all journalists that they too are at risk of being locked up, just for doing their job.”

At this crucial hour, a signal of support for Assange from every sitting member of parliament would have been a powerful message to the United States – and to the world. The fact that the opportunity was missed is clear evidence of how Australia is still so unsure of its place in the world. Our political class is so timid in response to fundamental issues of justice – just look at Australia’s response to the horrors being perpetrated in Gaza. The cultural cringe still clouds so much of how we see ourselves, and the risk is that our embedment in the Anglosphere is going to make us even more faint-hearted in the future.

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