View from The Hill

Assange: the Senate candidate who isn’t here

Julian Assange faces many challenges as a senate hopeful. AAP/Kerim Okten

One of the most interesting aspects of Julian Assange’s bid for a Victorian Senate seat is who will be his running mate.

If Assange happened to fluke a win – which electoral experts say is a very long shot - and then survived any legal challenge to his eligibility, he would face an intractable problem, assuming he was still ensconced in the Ecuadorian embassy when the new Senate met some time after July 1 next year.

The constitution provides that a senator loses his or her place if they don’t turn up for two consecutive months, unless a vote of the upper house gives them leave. Historically, only one senator has forfeited his place (in 1903, through illness). Leave periods have been granted, but never indefinite leave.

While the WikiLeaks party was unrepresented on the floor, the conservative side of politics would benefit in the senate numbers.

When there is a casual vacancy, the ex-senator’s party nominates a replacement, who is formally appointed by the parliament of the relevant state.

John Shipton, Assange’s father, who is getting together the WikiLeaks party, to be launched in Melbourne on Saturday, says he is negotiating with a potential running mate, keeping in mind this person could become the accidental senator.

Assange’s bid has ramped up to another level with the appointment of the politically-experienced Greg Barns and the party’s formal launch. Barns will run the campaign while Shipton, 68, concentrates on building the party.

Barns, who now works as a barrister, was an adviser to John Fahey, former finance minister in the Howard government. He was campaign director for the Australian Republic Movement’s 1999 referendum campaign. Later he was disendorsed as a state Liberal candidate in Tasmania after he criticised the Howard government’s tough policy on boat people.

He became interested in the Assange issue through his involvement in the progressive-oriented Australian Lawyers Alliance; he was then approached for the campaign. “I think Julian’s values are pretty consistent with mine, [in terms of] the rights of the individual vis-a-vis the state”. He will be fulltime on the campaign from June.

UMR polling in September asked people how likely they would be to vote for Assange for a Senate seat – in Victoria he polled 30 per cent.

New polling is about to be done, which will provide a more realistic test now the Assange candidacy is firm and the election closer.

While Assange’s stellar support in UMR polling (including an earlier survey it did) won’t be reflected in a real life vote, it would seem to put him at least in the mix for the sixth Senate place, given that tiny votes have elected former Victorian senator Steve Fielding (although he was installed by a preference deal with Labor) and current DLP senator John Madigan, also from Victoria.

But ABC election expert Antony Green rates Assange’s chances as minimal. He will be competing with the Greens for the last seat. “If Labor and the Greens have 43 per cent of the vote, there’s no room for Assange to be elected”, Green says.

“His best chance of getting elected would be if Labor gave him preferences ahead of the Greens”.

But, despite the falling out between the ALP and the Greens, why would they? The government has been highly critical of Assange.

In practical terms, says Green, “the only way he could get elected is to get the preferences of a lot of [micro] right-of-centre parties”.

This would appear difficult, although the Wikileaks party’s negotiating power on preferences would be boosted if the new polling found his support still high. Barns said he would be disappointed if Assange couldn’t pull in 6 per cent to 7 per cent of the vote in the election adding, on the question of preferences, “I’d be surprised if people didn’t come and have a talk”.

Barns says Assange draws support from across the political spectrum; yesterday he had offers of help from a former Liberal staffer and a former Nationals staffer. But in terms of primary votes, Assange obviously would need to attract some Green and left Labor voters.

The issues on which the Wikileaks party will campaign will include accountability, greater transparency in decision making and the role of the Senate as a house of review, as well as the increase of security powers since September 11, 2001.

The party, which will also run a Senate team at least in NSW and possibly elsewhere, will make some decisions about tactics at its meeting in Melbourne on Saturday. One is how much to use online versus old media for campaigning. For Assange personally, holed up in the embassy, video and online campaigning is obviously the only way to go. Shipton estimates that the campaign will need $100,000 per candidate to run.

Apart from other points of attack, Assange’s opponents will have an obvious killer argument against him: “Why think of voting for a man who won’t be able to take him seat?”

If ever there was a tilting-at-windmills bid, Assange’s is surely it. But then the Senate does see some strange contests – and a few unexpected results.