The Media Today

How Australia’s politicians rallied behind Julian Assange

September 12, 2023
Julian Assange, photographed on October 23, 2010, in London, England. Photo by Ki Price/Contour by Getty Images

Last week, Gabriel Shipton, the brother of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, tweeted a meme showing the heads of six prominent Australian politicians photoshopped onto the bodies of characters from Marvel’s Avengers franchise. “Not a fan of the Avengers movies, but have a huge soft spot for these courageous Politicians who will travel to Washington DC this month to free Julian Assange!” Shipton wrote. The text under the photo said “ASSANGERS ASSEMBLE!”

It referred to a delegation that will travel to the US next week to lobby on behalf of Assange, who is an Australian citizen but is currently incarcerated in the UK awaiting extradition to the US on charges, including under the Espionage Act, linked to WikiLeaks’ publication of leaked government documents in the early 2010s. In May, Assange’s wife, Stella, said that his health is “deteriorating by the minute.” The delegation is an unlikely set: it includes both Monique Ryan, an independent lawmaker who knocked out a top former government minister in elections last year and sees fighting climate change as a top priority, and Barnaby Joyce, an eccentric former deputy prime minister and leading skeptic of aggressive climate action. Joyce has said, of the delegation, that “besides the weather and Julian Assange we probably don’t all agree on anything.”

Members of the delegation have different reasons for wanting the US to drop the charges against Assange, from characterizing him as a brave truth-teller to the broader fear, stressed by Joyce, that allowing the extradition of someone who hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing in their country of citizenship would set a precedent that China, among other countries, might exploit. Even Joyce, however, has echoed the argument of press-freedom groups that the charges against Assange would effectively criminalize information-gathering and publishing practices that news organizations routinely engage in. And crucially, their cause now has the backing, at least in broad strokes, of both Anthony Albanese, the Labor Party leader who has been prime minister since last year, and Peter Dutton, the leader of the conservative opposition. Albanese will be in the US for a state visit next month. Shipton told me that the delegation heading to DC before then “will be pivotal” in creating “the political space” for Albanese to pressure President Biden to allow Assange to go home. (Shipton is chair of the Assange Campaign, which organized a crowdfunder to finance the delegation’s trip.)

Bipartisan support for Assange is a relatively recent development in Australian politics; indeed, for many years, swaths of the country’s political class didn’t seem to want much to do with him. In 2010, as WikiLeaks’ publication of cables leaked by the US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning came to a head, Julia Gillard, then Australia’s Labor prime minister, suggested that the group had engaged in “illegal” conduct. She softened her language after police found no evidence that Assange or WikiLeaks had committed any crimes in Australia, but continued to describe the group as “irresponsible.” The same year, Sweden issued an arrest warrant for Assange after two women separately went to police with accusations of sexual assault. Gillard said, of the case, “there’s not anything we can, or indeed, should do about that.” (Australia did offer Assange, who was then in the UK, consular support in the matter.)

Assange later threatened to sue Gillard over her assertion of criminality and repeatedly accused her of betraying him and selling out to the Americans. In 2013, by now holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, he called Gillard’s administration “as perverted a government as you can possibly imagine.” 

The same year, Assange and his allies mounted a party, named after WikiLeaks, that put up candidates in Australia’s national elections; Assange himself ran for a seat in the Senate. (“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors,” he said, channeling Plato.) The effort flopped, amid infighting in the party’s ranks. And the conservative prime ministers who eventually succeeded Gillard—first Tony Abbott, then Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison—did not prove friendlier to his cause (despite Turnbull having earlier criticized Gillard’s handling of Assange’s treatment). After Morrison took office in 2018, one of his government’s first acts was to ban Manning from coming to Australia for a speaking tour. When the actor Pamela Anderson, a prominent ally of Assange, called on Morrison to repatriate Assange, he offered only this in response: “Plenty of mates have asked me if they can be my special envoy to sort out the issue with Pamela.” 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

After Ecuador kicked Assange out of the embassy in 2019, Morrison insisted that he would get no “special treatment” and stuck to the argument that Australia could not interfere in British legal proceedings as the latter country jailed Assange and began to consider the US request for his extradition. Still, Assange enjoyed support from outspoken voices across different pockets of the political spectrum. In 2016, Pauline Hanson, a far-right populist, urged the government to repatriate Assange, likening him to the “anti-establishment folk hero” Ned Kelly. In 2019, Joyce called for the extradition to be stopped, as did Bob Carr, who had served as foreign minister under Gillard, and Kevin Rudd, himself a former Labor prime minister (who is now the Australian ambassador to the US). And a group of lawmakers launched a “Bring Julian Assange Home” group in Parliament. “I am a big fan of Trump, I am a big fan of Bojo, but I’ll tell you what I value more: free speech,” George Christensen, a right-wing lawmaker, said after visiting Assange in prison (referring to Britain’s then prime minister, Boris Johnson). “There are a lot of Australians on the right and left who think that Julian Assange is a rat bag, that I am a rat bag, but that he should be brought home.”

Eventually, ahead of elections last year, Albanese, then the opposition leader, said that he did “not see what purpose is served by the ongoing pursuit” of Assange, adding, “Enough is enough.” After taking office, critics accused Albanese of inaction, but his government suggested that it was talking to the US government behind closed doors and would not engage in “diplomacy by megaphone.” Earlier this year, Albanese said in an interview that he was frustrated by the lack of progress in resolving Assange’s case. He also pointed to a “disconnect” between America’s treatment of Assange and its own citizen, Manning, whose sentence for providing information to WikiLeaks was commuted as President Barack Obama left office in 2017.

Shipton, Assange’s brother, attributes the belated political consensus around Assange’s case to the hard work of the campaign and, relatedly, to growing public support that has filtered into the political system. As far back as 2012, a majority of Australians, at least according to one poll, believed that Assange should not face charges for publishing information; recently, that number has grown. “A lot of people here don’t particularly agree with Julian’s methodology or what WikiLeaks did,” Shipton said. “But they can still see that Julian is not being treated fairly.”

While members of the delegation have been explicit about wanting to “free” Assange, the government’s public line on his case has been somewhat less so; in theory, its language doesn’t foreclose outcomes short of Assange’s release, such as a plea agreement with the US Justice Department. But Quentin Dempster, a veteran former journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and close observer of Assange’s case, told me that the government is responding to public pressure for Assange’s release, whatever euphemistic language it might use. And Dempster is hopeful that Australia might be able to win over the Biden administration given the strong diplomatic ties between the two countries, which are only growing closer as the US pivots to counter China in the Pacific region. Last month, Caroline Kennedy, the US ambassador to Australia, hinted at a potential resolution of Assange’s case.

Still, an expert in international law told the Sydney Morning Herald that Kennedy’s language suggested that the US would not drop the charges outright, and that a potential plea deal in the case could lead Assange to spend time in jail in Australia. And other observers see various impediments to a possible deal on the US side, including Biden’s repeated promises to insulate his Justice Department from political pressure. In July, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, appeared to rebuff Penny Wong, the Australian foreign minister, at a joint press conference. “It’s very important that our friends here understand our concerns about this matter,” Blinken said, adding that Assange stands accused of “very serious criminal conduct” in the US. 

When I asked Shipton whether he’s hopeful that the delegation and growing political momentum around Assange’s case in Australia might finally win his brother’s freedom, he said that he didn’t foresee such an outcome “without this sort of political groundswell.” He pledged to keep fighting. But, he added, “I try not to deal too much in hope when you’re fighting against the US security state.”

Other notable stories:

  • Walter Isaacson’s eagerly anticipated biography of Elon Musk is out today, and the reviews are starting to land. (Brian Merchant, at the LA Times, was unimpressed, calling it “the book Musk would have written himself.”) Meanwhile, CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports that Isaacson has already had to clarify an explosive claim from the book, about Musk’s Starlink satellite service and the war in Ukraine. For New York magazine, Shawn McCreesh profiled Isaacson, exploring how the “ultimate Old Establishment man” wound up in “the unlikeliest writer-subject pairing since Bob Woodward and John Belushi.” (And ICYMI, my colleague Mathew Ingram wrote a bit about the book last week.)
  • Writing for The Intercept, Seth Stern, the advocacy director at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, warns that the racketeering indictment of sixty-one people who protested a police facility in Georgia has troubling implications for press freedom. The charges refer to behavior in which journalists routinely engage, and “any source considering talking to a journalist about a protest or controversial cause couldn’t be blamed for thinking twice after reading the indictment,” Stern writes. “The message is clear: Try to spread opinions cops don’t like through the media, and you might find your name listed after ‘State v.’”
  • For the Detroit Free Press, David Cay Johnston looked back on a story that he broke for the paper fifty years ago, detailing corrupt “news manipulations and coverage blackouts” at a TV station in Lansing. Johnston’s reporting “prompted a unique event in American broadcast history” as the station’s parent company shut down, he writes. And it awoke the media “to the stories behind the news: how news is made, who makes it, and the foibles, strengths, and sometimes misdeeds of everyone from reporters to publishers.”
  • A court in the Philippines acquitted Maria Ressa, the founder of the independent news site Rappler and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, of tax-evasion charges. The charges were the last of their kind left standing against Ressa and Rappler, though the legal threats to the site aren’t over just yet, as Rappler’s Jairo Bolledo reports. (In 2019, Ressa wrote for CJR about then-president Rodrigo Duterte’s crusade against her.)
  • And a court in Portugal convicted Rui Pinto, the man behind a series of explosive revelations about the murky world of European soccer, on charges that he hacked various organizations and attempted to extort a sports investment firm, though he received only a suspended sentence. At trial, Pinto cast himself as a whistleblower, but added, “My work as a whistleblower is finished.” (I wrote about his case back in 2019.)

ICYMI: Where Chuck Todd failed

Update: This post has been updated for clarity.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.