In December 2020, Martin Kovan writes
on Assange and the Australian state
The current Australian coalition government, the Labor opposition (notably under former Prime Minister Julia Gillard), and much of the intellectual, cultural and media commentariat has in recent years consistently, consciously and systematically betrayed, not merely an important Australian citizen, but also the very ethos Australians like to imagine is centrally their own: the capacity to adjudicate moral conflict with decency, reason, an attention to facts, and an egalitarian concern with a ‘fair go’ for all antagonists.
We Australians also like to imagine our liberal-democratic politics and polity is imbued with a healthy dose of ‘larrikin’ irreverence towards inflated authority, especially where that authority has proven to be unworthy of respect, let alone reverence. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, and those tired old tropes don’t apply anymore. In the past decade, and especially during Trump’s tenure, that same polity has thrown off that long- cherished self-image, like an outworn illusion. It has chosen to abase itself and its sovereign interests to a foreign power, that is assumed to be justified in arrogating those interests to serve its own. How is this possible? The only answer is that Australia—in its elite political and cultural representatives, as well as the great majority of its public—has lost the courage of its own alleged convictions.
On what grounds can this be asserted? We can take one unarguable example as probative. Most obviously, the national media and commentariat across the ideological spectrum has been more or less willing to ridicule and rue the mendacity, dysfunction and moral perniciousness of Trump and his outgoing administration, but when it comes to that same administration’s persecution of Assange (with its Swedish, British and Ecuadorian enablers), it prefers to keep prudentially mum. Quite literally: the most the few mainstream media outlets engaging the case were willing to extend to even its human rights dimensions were whispers of pusillanimous caution around the right to free speech.
None of the esteemed literary elite of the country said a word. There has been no ‘J’accuse!’ moment in Australia in the last four years because none of our literary writers and public intellectuals has seen fit to dignify it as such. None have stepped up to publicly and unequivocally assert that there might be robust grounds to defend Assange, as an Australian citizen, from unjustified abuse of his person and his reputation. His falsely perceived status as a probable rapist, and his role in the electoral downing of Hillary Clinton in 2016, have it appears warranted the blanket dismissal of any genuine consideration of his own rights of self-defence.
But this only betrays the kind of selective and self-interested morality those same liberal defenders of free speech and the rule of law deplore in flailing democracies or authoritarian states like Hungary, China or Russia. Some Australian commentators of the liberal-democratic left have generously suggested that Assange ought to be excused in some way only because he is apparently autistic, a notion as glibly patronising as it is irrelevant to the gravamen, the moral and legal substance, of the case. This represents a craven failure to live up to their professed standards of the moral defence of liberty undergirding the very possibility of open discourse, freedom from censorship, and their own would-be enlightened cultural practice.
There have, however, been domestic exceptions more broadly—and beyond of course Assange’s own legal counsel in Jennifer Robinson—not least in the Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group, comprising MPs Andrew Wilkie, George Christensen, and Peter Whish-Wilson among others, as well as media, legal and medical commentators including Phillip Adams, Mark Davis, Mary Kostakidis, Greg Barnes, Dean Yates, Wendy Bacon, Lissa Johnson, and most visibly John Pilger and John Shipton, among few others. These and others have maintained a stalwart resistance to years of disinformation and defamation surrounding Assange’s name. But it’s a minimal chorus, singing from a sinking ship, not merely in moral support of Assange, but in service to that justice that would see a bipartisan consensus reject the Trump administration’s attempts to extradite an Australian citizen, for the reason of his having exercised a legitimate freedom of speech in the public interest.
The same justice would also see the Australian public express justified outrage, rather than limp acquiescence, towards the extraterritorial exceptionalism of American rights of extradition—not merely in the tens or couple of hundreds (at best), but in the tens of thousands. It would see Assange released from British incarceration, possibly by mediation of the Australian attorney-general, and not merely granted bail in order to see out the remainder of a quasi-judicial process that, in the terms of the U.N. Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer, has been riddled with prejudicial and undue process.
It would above all see Australia reclaim its national moral integrity. The fact that the Senate in November passed a motion acknowledging Assange’s case is little more than noting damage long after the event. (No corporate media reported it, including the ABC.) It would see that kind of mealy-mouthed leadership as ultimately short-sighted: as in fact complicit with Trump’s four years of leadership that history has already condemned as morally bankrupt, and by extension those who have been willing to enable its multiple abuses of power. But to observe the inert landscape of the national conversation around Assange is to observe a nation that has lost its courage and sense of moral clarity.
What might justify this relative silence? Either the great silent majority consider that there is or might be some justification in the persecution of Assange, or they don’t. If they don’t see the persecution as justified, they betray a gross inconsistency in not including it in the baggy catalogue of Trump’s many moral-legal transgressions, and fail the job of upholding the norms they otherwise take for granted. If they do see the persecution as justified, and they believe there is some intrinsic fault in Assange’s journalistic activities, or even his personal failings, that warrants a full decade of the abuse of his human rights, they fail to clearly and adequately articulate just what this is. Doing so would at the least offer some dignity of reason not merely to Assange in his suffering, but also themselves in pretending to a position of integrity; that is, in a capacity to report the facts and, where possible, come to the right conclusions about them.
It’s important to clarify, again, the context in which this lapse of integrity has occurred. No-one, over the same four years, had any trouble with condemning Trump’s documented sexism, his false accusations in the ‘birther’ controversy, his inflammatory speech prior to and during the BLM movement actions, his hypocritical appeal to Christian values in his heavy-handed treatment of peaceful protest, his ongoing indirect exoneration of American white supremacy, his deception in addressing taxation disclosures, his arbitrary evasion from impeachment, his abject mishandling of the corona-virus, including his wilful manipulation in lying to a vulnerable population in order to sustain a false image of his own authority, resulting in the loss of life of hundreds of thousands of underprivileged Americans, to invoke only some among the headline cases.
But when it comes to a systematic propaganda and disinformation campaign to discredit the personal and professional integrity of Assange, begun by the Obama national security state but vigorously championed and expanded under Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, no-one has anything to say, no critical jokes to crack, not even snidely superior sniggers to make at anyone’s expense—except Assange’s own. This failure of nerve extends to the majority of government itself, for whom Assange is apparently someone of no real account to national honour, to be treated as any citizen might be in any standard diplomatic case. Morrison’s and Payne’s disingenuousness here is of a high, and highly offensive, order.
It’s offensive because instead of defending the rights of an Australian citizen with seriousness and sincerity, in all of our names (and whether we ‘agree’ with everything Assange has done or said), and thereby demonstrate the maturity, independence and sovereignty of our political and diplomatic institutions, both sides of politics in Australia have chosen instead to allow a proven liar, misogynist, and apologist for white supremacy, to determine the appropriate self-representation of a sovereign people and its government. Worse still, the Australian public—excepting those of the half a million signatories to Phillip Adams’ Free Julian Assange change.org campaign—has effectively sanctioned this self-abasement.
What no-one in the national leadership and its various ideological mouthpieces is able to admit to is that in this very process we have proven that we remain America’s accomplice in injustice and international crime, as the recent Brereton Report has demonstrated, and we prove it now most balefully by sacrificing not another Vietnamese farmer, Iraqi merchant, or Afghan villager, but one of the most impressive Australians of recent decades—an original loose-cannon, but one who will be remembered as one of the foundational architects of democratic digital transparency in the Information Age.
Assange will, a century from now, I wager, be thought of in much the same terms as we now consider Voltaire and Diderot, who also did their jail time, but who weren’t crucified thereby, inasmuch as they successfully ushered in an age of enlightenment that we now claim as ours, but insincerely, and in the shallow terms of lip-service by which contemporary liberal democracy is increasingly kissing away its pith and core. The presiding government, and the people it renders impotent under its mediocre rule, will be remembered only for having betrayed Assange in his, and perhaps the nation’s, hour of most critical reckoning.
Of course, Assange and Wikileaks is also convention-breaking, transgressive, and as threatening to entrenched power as anything could be: so unfamiliar, in fact, just because no other institutional or civil power has been able to rise to the challenge as effectively as Wikileaks has. It’s important not to minimise that fact, and deflate its genuine novelty in an asymmetric comparison to corporate journalism as it has been constituted especially since 9/11, when state security began to take precedence over the disclosure of facts concerning the mechanisms of corporate, military and transnational powers exercised with respect to globalising neoliberal interests.
Given these interests, desperate to preserve their immunity from critique, Assange alone has been unsurprisingly framed as the essentially aberrant party (despite an initial flame of establishment endorsement, quickly extinguished). The stages of Assange’s persecution have been legitimated only by virtue of a propaganda campaign that successfully brought much of liberal-democratic opinion under its sway: it took up to a decade to pull off but, as Nils Melzer suggests, it indisputably succeeded.
And we know this is true because it takes no hard looking to see who and what has been the aberrant party all along, and by extension who has fallen foul of its manipulations. It’s for this failing, and not his own, that Assange is paying the price. A further and worse irony is that even if he’s released in the coming time, with a pardon or commutation or even, miraculously, dismissal of the extradition order by the British legal system, it will be too late for those who’ve remained indifferently silent to be exonerated.
Given the continuing fact of Assange’s incarceration in Belmarsh Prison, literally besieged by high levels of coronavirus infection and risking his dying, that failure of exoneration is possibly the best that the Australian polity can hope for. If so, it will be among the most aberrant episodes of a long-troubled national history.