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The politicians fighting to bring Assange home

Nov 27, 2019 • 16m 19s

As Julian Assange fights against extradition to the United States, an unlikely group of politicians is working to have him returned to Australia.

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The politicians fighting to bring Assange home

130 • Nov 27, 2019

The politicians fighting to bring Assange home

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

As Julian Assange fights against extradition to the United States, an unlikely group of politicians is working to have him returned to Australia. Rick Morton on the question of law that underpins his case.

[Music ends]

RICK:

Hello.

ELIZABETH:

Hey, Rick, how are ya.

RICK:

I'm good. How are you?

ELIZABETH:

Good, thanks.

So Rick, what do we know about the meeting that happened on Monday when the “Parliamentary Friends of the Bring Julian Assange Home Group,” end quote, met for the first time?

RICK:

You did that very well! Look, I mean, so this kind of weird bunch of MPs were due to hear from Julian Assange’s London-based lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, and Australian barrister, Greg Barns. Essentially, what we're looking at here is day one of the fight to bring Julian Assange back to Australia.

ELIZABETH:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter for The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

They met for the first time on Monday. That was the start of this campaign, really. And it was certainly the start of a unified, more strategic campaign with a political edge, because as Andrew Wilkie, the independent MP from Tasmania told me, this problem should have a political solution. In fact, it looks like it's the only solution left to Julian Assange.

ELIZABETH:

So how does a friendship group like this come into being?

RICK:

They're fairly odd beasts, the parliamentary friendship groups and there's so many of them. There’s ‘Friends of Gun Control’. But there's also ‘Parliamentary Friends of Shooting’, just to balance things out. And they're, they’re not formal parliamentary committees, but they do have some formality attached. They have to have proper cross-parliamentary membership, from across different political parties. There’s also a 10 member minimum and they have to be generally non-controversial. And they both have to be signed off by the presiding officers of the Senate and the House of Representatives. So there are hurdles to clear. And when I spoke to Andrew Wilkie, he admitted some surprise that this almost ticked off at all. Because by its very nature, it is somewhat controversial.

Archival Tape -- Andrew Wilkie:

“What brings us together, what we all have in common, is a very strong desire to see the U.S. extradition attempt dropped. And for Julian Assange to be brought back to Australia...”

RICK:

But I suspect that goes to the broader view that there is a softening of sentiment around Julian Assange. Certainly around his legal position. And that political response is now necessary.

ELIZABETH:

So who else is in this parliamentary friends group besides Andrew Wilkie?

RICK:

So we've got two Greens members. We've got Adam Bandt and Peter Whish-Wilson, two Labor members. That's Julian Hill and Steve Georganas. And we've got independent Zali Steggall. Andrew Wilkie is another independent, he's the co-chair and the founder. And the other co-chair, surprisingly, is George Christensen, the LNP member. And Barnaby Joyce is the pure Nationals member. So this whole thing was kicked off really, thanks to lobbying from Julian Assange’s parents, who have been in Canberra throughout the year trying to convince politicians that their son should not be extradited to the United States of America.

ELIZABETH:

It's a disparate group. What is it that brings them together?

RICK:

It is a very strange group [laughs]. You've got Barnaby Joyce, who’s fairly recently been sounding off about Greens policies and bushfires in Australia. And Adam Bandt, who will be sitting next to Barnaby Joyce in this group. So it's a weird group, but they are united on a matter of law. And that's, you know, respect and credit should be given to these MPs for joining because it is a matter of the law. And many of them have expressed to me the fact that they don't even like Julian Assange. Some of them hate him. They detest him. They might not even agree with what he did. But it shouldn't matter before the law, and it particularly shouldn't matter when, as they have expressed me, we've got a man, Julian Assange, who is not a United States citizen, who is charged with crimes that were not committed in the United States. Who is the subject of extradition proceedings that would bring him back to the country that he essentially reported on. And that's what unites this group. They are the matters of sovereignty and other legal matters, really, and the underpinning of this friendship group.

ELIZABETH:

Mhmm.

RICK:

So, I was talking to Andrew Wilkie he said that this case with Julian Assange has become a political football. And he said that while that is not ideal, it does raise the option of this having a political solution. And that's really where they have come together, because they're particularly trying to get more members from across the parliament who can then lean on the government, particularly Foreign Minister Marise Payne and the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to do something about this and to stand up to a longstanding ally.

ELIZABETH:

And Rick, how did Julian Assange get here, how did he get to this current situation?

RICK:

Good question. He founded WikiLeaks, which is a kind of transparency organisation / journalism project / cross secret squirrel business. And in 2010, WikiLeaks published what was at the time the largest cache of classified information ever released in the world.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“These remarkable trove of documents that have been released in the last year, the Iraq war logs, the Afghanistan war logs and the U.S. State Department documents…”

RICK:

There were 750,000 odd documents and cables, particularly related to the Iraq and Afghanistan war.

And they were severely embarrassing for many governments around the world, but particularly the United States of America. Julian got these documents from Chelsea Manning, who I think many people will also know, she was a defense analyst working for the United States government.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“This time, cables, electronic diplomatic communications sent between headquarters in Washington, D.C. and embassies and consulates around the world. The latest leak includes confidential views about major allies and partners. Among the specifics, worries about security at a Pakistan nuclear facility.”

RICK:

Essentially, now, Julian Assange has been charged with 18 counts of conspiracy to hack Department of Defense computers in America, and of dealing in classified information that affects national security. Those 18 charges carry a total prison sentence time of 175 years. Now, Greg Barnes uses different language to me, but he says that that is effectively a death sentence.

ELIZABETH:

Hmm, I mean, at the same time is all of that is happening, Assange was wanted for questioning in Sweden for sexual assault.

RICK:

Well, that was always one of the more unsettling aspects of this whole saga, right, because Julian Assange was alleged to have committed these rapes and in Sweden and one of them involved allegedly having sex with a woman without a condom against her knowledge.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“There's been a dramatic twist in the WikiLeaks saga. Julian Assange has surprised his supporters and opponents alike after seeking political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

The discussion here has focused really on what happens right down the line. If he ends up in Sweden, would he then be possibly extradited to the United States, which could only happen after the Swedish cases is settled one way or another?”

RICK:

But this week, just gone, the last of those charges have been dropped. He wasn't exonerated, but nor was there a finding made, simply too much time had passed. Those were the last legal obstacles, essentially, to Julian Assange's case, which has now got the ability to focus purely on the fact that he is facing extradition.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Rick, we’re talking about efforts to bring Julian Assange back to Australia. Where is he now? Where is Assange?

RICK:

Assange is currently being held in in basically solitary confinement in Belmarsh Prison, it’s on the outskirts of London.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“WikiLeaks founder arrested at the Ecuadorian assembly embassy in London, he added. We are now learning Ecuador withdrew his asylum for violating their arrangement.”

RICK:

And he is about 45 minutes of exercise every day where he is allowed out of his cell. But he's quite sick both mentally and physically. And we have to remember that he did spend seven years of his own volition seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy with very little sunlight. So by all accounts, he's not a well man and he has been denied bail because he's been deemed a flight risk.

ELIZABETH:

So Rick what is the status of his legal case, what’s his legal situation?

RICK:

Really, the key issue here and I was talking to Andrew Wilkie about this, is that America is not his home country. The crimes that he is alleged to have committed did not happen in America. That did not happen on American soil. He is not in their custody. He has not been brought before an American court. And there are broader issues here of this kind of ancient legal principle called habeas corpus, which literally means that you have the body, you know, to be subject to the laws of a certain country, you have to be able to be brought before the courts in those countries. And that seems to be the nexus around which this case is building. And that's what animates Barnaby Joyce in all of this. I mean, he's a huge believer in Australia's sovereignty and the fact that he, Julian Assange, no matter, whether we like him or not, is an Australian citizen and should not be subject to the laws of another country, when he was not in that country.

ELIZABETH:

Tell me more about Joyce's position, because he also refers to the role of other countries. And um, sort of using them as a test case for how he should respond to the United States in this instance.

RICK:

I actually think Barnaby's got a very interesting point about this. You know, he's essentially saying: beware of sycophancy. And he says that as a warning shot against our relationship with America, which, which he loves and respects. But sycophancy demonstrated now with America where, as a government, if we bowed down before them and allow them to take our Australian citizen for crimes that were not committed on their soil, then Barnaby Joyce's point is: what happens then when China comes knocking? They will push and push and push to get what they want. And they're our largest economic trading partner. And what happens if there is a situation in the future where another Australian citizen is facing extradition to China and we step in to try and stop that from happening under similar circumstances to Julian Assange? He's saying if we do not have the precedent of having acted before with the United States, then that will royally piss off China. And that, he says, is a path to economic disaster. And, you know, he uses China in that example, but he says it could be Russia, it could be any other country. The point is Australia's sovereignty. The point is the supremacy of our laws and the rights of our citizens not to face undue legal prosecution in countries where they are not from, were not born, and did not commit any crimes. So I think the broader tension between that U.S. and China relationship is starting to play out in cases like Julian Assange’s, where we have to think about the examples we're setting because we may be setting ourselves a trap for the future.

ELIZABETH:

So, I mean for Joyce, I assume he's in this camp where he's saying I'm not necessarily a supporter of Assange and his activities personally, but I am a supporter of the law as it applies to all people. So for him this is not about questions of free speech or whether Assange is a journalist or publisher, this is about Australian sovereignty.

RICK:

Correct. And, you know, and Barnaby Joyce has had a pretty torrid year with the media. He fairly recently spoke out against journalists as a general rule, which makes it all the more important, I think that he's making this stand. And I think it is important. I had a few people kind of try to raise the issue of me going, why is it-- why does it matter that people don't like Julian Assange? And I think it matters because they're the people legally or politically, you have to win over if he want his case to be successful. And, you know, people who like Julian Assange will like him anyway, whether the law is correct or not. But I think there's a sort of embarrassment, particularly among politicians, but even among the general population who don't want to admit... to be seen on Julian Assange’s side because some people find his character to be detestable, or just kind of untasteful. It's important to raise that to show that the law should rise above it all. And that, I think, is where Barnaby Joyce is coming from. It's certainly where George Christensen’s coming from. And a few other members of that group who have privately told me that they don't think much of the man. But I think that is all the more powerful to explain that the law should rise above it all.

ELIZABETH:

And are the politicians in this group optimistic about the outcome of what might be possible for Assange?

RICK:

I mean, I think the existence of the group by its very nature is optimistic, but time is of the essence. Julian Assange is facing extradition. That hearing has not been delayed. It will happen in February and it's almost Christmas. So I think the one glimmer of optimism on the horizon at the moment is that he has now finally received the standard consular assistance that is provided to Australian citizens detained or in trouble overseas. In fact, Greg Barnes mentioned that he, he ran into Marise Payne, the foreign minister on Bourke Street in Melbourne fairly recently and had a very brief chat with her. Even if they haven't said so publicly, I'm sure there are wheels turning behind the scenes, we just don't know what that looks like yet. But obviously, time is ticking, and the group will need some more support and some more fairly loud and public support before we see any marked change in the way this government has handled the matter.

ELIZABETH:

Rick, thank you so much.

RICK:

Thanks, Elizabeth.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Westpac chief executive Brian Hartzer has resigned and chairman Linsday Maxsted will also step down following allegations that the bank repeatedly breached anti-money laundering laws. Hartzer will depart the bank on December 2nd, but will be paid his full $2.7 million salary for the next 12 months. The dual resignations were welcomed by the Morrison government, and the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has reassured Westpac customers that its financial stability is not at risk.

And Energy Minister Angus Taylor is being investigated by NSW Police over claims he was involved in doctoring an annual report produced by the City of Sydney. The fraudulent document was used by Taylor to criticise Sydney’s lord mayor, Clover Moore, and to attack the council’s spending. Responding to the claims in Parliament on Tuesday, Taylor rejected suggestions that he or his staff had altered the document. He continued, quote, “I won’t be lectured by the party of Aldi bags and wine boxes full of cash.” Scott Morrison told Parliament that he had not been updated on developments and that he will take advice from police in relation to the issue.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Thursday.

As Julian Assange fights against extradition to the United States, an unlikely group of politicians is working to have him returned to Australia. Rick Morton on the question of law that underpins his case.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

Saving Julian Assange in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Elle Marsh, with Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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130: The politicians fighting to bring Assange home