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Senate run must be more than a get-out-of-jail card for Assange

Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks Party is gathering momentum ahead of this year’s federal election. Prominent barrister and political figure Greg Barns has been announced as the party’s national campaign director…

Julian Assange needs to consider his Australian senate run as more than just a ticket out of the Ecuadorian embassy. EPA/Kerim Okten

Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks Party is gathering momentum ahead of this year’s federal election. Prominent barrister and political figure Greg Barns has been announced as the party’s national campaign director, while it has secured a Melbourne-based headquarters and attracted donations of up to A$100,000.

But what could a man like Julian Assange achieve within the orthodox structures of parliament?

When Professor John Keane spent the day with Assange recently, Assange briefly discussed his plans to run for the Senate. He predicts that if successful, the US will drop its grand jury espionage investigation in order to avoid a diplomatic row. He might still be extradited to Sweden, but winning a Senate seat in September could secure his freedom from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. It is probably his best chance.

Through WikiLeaks, Assange built his reputation as an outsider, using technologically enabled anonymous leaks to “speak truth to power”. But as a senator, Assange will find himself working within formal democratic structures. For many, this will make him an insider, privy to the world he has sought to expose. There is no certainty that Assange’s presence in the Senate would improve public accountability, but the presence of his radical ideas in our highest political forum will force us all to have a conversation about what we think we should and shouldn’t know.

As a senator, Assange is likely to experience a profound conflict of interest. He will have a duty to his country and its security, and this may require privacy. On the other hand, he will have a sustained commitment to WikiLeaks, and this may require him to reveal state secrets. Such a tension puts at risk his credibility to his constituents and supporters.

To function effectively, Assange will need alliances. He will need to make trade-offs and build relationships, especially if he wants to make his political agenda “real” through legislative change. But in the context of the Senate, the WikiLeaks Party’s commitment to openness through radical transparency could isolate them from other senators who are fearful of betrayed confidences. If they are isolated, the functional benefits of the WikiLeaks Party within Senate may be limited.

This may not prove to be a problem. Assange may have no intention of working as a traditional senator, even one from a minor party. If he intends to maintain his status as an outsider, uncontaminated by associations with other politicians, he may still prove effective. As a senator with an international profile, he could use his position to solicit public sector and parliamentary leaks and promote the benefits of transparent and open government. As a result, Australians may be keener than ever to blow the whistle on organisational behaviour.

In fact, we may all be better served if Assange refuses deals and focuses on what he does best – high profile whistleblowing. This would allow him the freedom to continue his work at WikiLeaks, free from exile. It would also sustain his identity as an agitator, unsatisfied with emergent forms of transparency that are dictated by government and corporate power.

But it would be wise for the electorate to consider whether the work of Assange should be advanced in Senate. It is not our job to elect him in order to free him. He needs a clear political platform.

On this, we’ve still heard little from Assange. All he has really said is that the WikiLeaks Party will demonstrate “ideological unity” around a collective belief in public accountability mobilised by radical forms of transparency.

To this aim, he intends to allow constituents to have a direct say in the policy decision-making process through a Wikipedia style website. This could prove an exciting new experiment in participatory democracy and if successful may silence those who have criticised “the one man Julian Assange show”.

Interestingly, Professor Keane flinched when Assange mentioned an ideological commitment to perfect transparency - even the most hyper-democratic arrangements need some privacy in order to manage sensitivities in the governing process. In addition, much political negotiation happens in private in order to speed up the business of government.

It also should be recognised that as an ideology, “transparency” only describes half of the process – it is only the revelation. Once wrongdoing is exposed, we still need action to produce meaningful change. Transparency in itself is not enough. It is one thing to reveal truths and another to act on them.

Prior to Assange’s arrest, the survival of WikiLeaks depended on its organisational form. The work of WikiLeaks could be picked up at a moment’s notice and reassembled anywhere. This mobility allowed Assange to meet with various informants, reporters and to spread his vision of a world “laid bare” by WikiLeaks. It was both untethered and tiring work.

Assange may now be tethered inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, but he remains tireless, his attention now turned to the federal election in September. Members of the WikiLeaks Party now need to articulate their political platform and give Victorians a reason to vote for them – and this needs to be a vote for more than Assange’s freedom.

Join the conversation

24 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    is assange's only reason for running a way out of his current dilemma.

    he seems to me to be a person of little character - a lot of good intentions for the worst reasons.

    we have enough egocentric politicians in this country to warrant one more.

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      "He seems to me to be a person of little character - a lot of good intentions for the worst reasons".

      When compared to the g**-sh***s that the major Parties regurgitate for our voting pleasure, Assange stands out for having good intentions in place of whatever the Party contributor wants, and even his little character stands out in the complete absence of character of the aforementioned bunch.

      His reasons boil down to accountability - again, far more justification for voting Assange than voting LibLab ever again.

      Sure, he may be confronted with responsibilities for maintaining confidentialities, and he'll mature with that. However, it's pretty obvious that the current mobs have not the guts for governing this nation in the interests of its citizens.

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  2. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    The central premise of this article, which is that Assange has to conform to pre-existing models of Australian parliamentary governance, is wrong especially in light of the fact that Prime Minister Gillard has already, incorrectly, identified his activities as "illegal" under Australian law. The AFP doesn't think so:

    http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/julian-assange-has-committed-no-crime-in-australia-afp-20101217-190eb.html

    That cowardly declaration of illegality by Gillard is…

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    1. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Well said, Mr Nolan.

      Particularly this comparison:

      "No, he doesn't need a 'clear political platform'. Have you listened to Barnaby Joyce being interviewed? Have you heard of Steve Fielding? Clear political platform? Don't make me laugh."

      Just how many senators can claim a "clear political platform"?

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    2. Max Baker

      Lecturer at University of Sydney

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      If Julian Assange is to stand for a break with conventional visionless politics then surely he must lead by example. Assange has a chance do get it right, not just in terms of improving parliamentary accountability but also to set strong and positive visions for our future under his leadership. I look forward to seeing what they will be.

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  3. Gary Myers

    logged in via LinkedIn

    If elected, he'll have some time to get organised before taking a seat in the second half of next year. Without any senate responsibilities up to then, he'll be free of any conflicts of interest.

    I'd guess that, if he wins, the spot would come from one of the three Labor senators, and it would otherwise have gone to a Greens candidate. I'd also expect that the Greens will maintain a balance of power in the Senate, so that Assange would be free to vote or abstain without actually offending any core constituency for the first half of his term.

    He may even be able to go a full term without actually taking on any responsibility at all.

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  4. Monika Merkes

    Honorary Associate, Australian Institute for Primary Care & Ageing at La Trobe University

    The recently registered Pirate Party Australia is also preparing for the September elections http://pirateparty.org.au/2013/01/21/pirate-party-australia-successfully-registers-for-federal-elections/
    In Germany, the Pirate Party has now 45 Landtag (state parliament) members and 193 municipal council seats.
    A protest vote against the established parties can be quite powerful.

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    1. Liam Hanlon
      Liam Hanlon is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Student

      In reply to Monika Merkes

      It could be...if we had proportional representation like in Germany. Fact is not enough people would protest vote in one seat so the votes would just end up being preferenced to one of the bigger parties. PR is the reason they've won so many seats in Germany. Its also way more democratic than our current voting system.

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    2. Suzy Gneist

      Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

      In reply to Liam Hanlon

      Also the reason why the greens have never been represented in proportion to the percentage of people who voted for them. The preferential system has many undemocratic side effects, including having a party form government even though they represent a smaller proportion of the vote than another party due to preferences but not primary votes.

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      agree - like that guy in victoria who became a senator with less than 3% of the primary vote - there's no democracy there. at least make it mandatory for a candidate to get a minimum of say 30%.

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    4. Bruce Tabor

      Research Scientist at CSIRO

      In reply to Liam Hanlon

      Hi Liam,
      Senate elections are effectively proportional. At each half-senate election 6 senators from each state are chosen. That's why we have a strong influence from minor parties and independents in the Senate.

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    5. rachael watkins

      Nurse

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Its crazy that we have little choice. When i vote for a particular political party, i dont want it to go to another party. Its rediculous! Will the Greens ever be brave to stand alone. Can they? Go Assange! We need honesty and transperancy. Im sick of the bullshit. We need real people.
      I agree with the idea of putting it out there so the general public can make a decision. If i had an adopted child i would tell them right from the start so they can deal with it.
      Unless influenced by media or politicians usually the people if informed with all the factors involved will take on a moral and usually the best for the community decision.
      Lets go back to democracy.We seem to have fallen into a paternalistic govenment style.
      Im an adult, I dont want to be told what is good for me, i would like to know the options, have education and be able to give an informed decision.

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    6. Liam Hanlon
      Liam Hanlon is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Student

      In reply to Bruce Tabor

      Yeah I know that the Senate is pretty much a proportionate system but with all the preference deals etc. its not really a true one. Take Steve Fielding or the DLP for example. Neither could get over 2% of the vote but preferences got them to the number required. The Greens can hold their own in that regard but for many other minor parties it really depends on how you get preferenced.

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    7. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Bruce Tabor

      Bruce, an even better Parliamentary configuration would be for the Senate to not be State-based, but a single national electorate.

      If this new Senate is then made the house of government, then the Senate majority leader would have an unambiguous mandate to be Prime Minister, and govern. The ministry would then be drawn from the elected Senators.

      The House of Representatives could remain as it is, with single-member electorates. Alternatively, the opportunity could be taken to fix House of Representative electoral boundaries on local government boundaries, and areas with larger populations would elect multiple representatives.

      The benefits of this system are that governments would almost invariably be minority/coalition governments (contrary to the noise from certain blowhard sections of the media, the Gillard government has been surprisingly effective), and a diminishment of the influence of major Party power brokers.

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    8. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to rachael watkins

      "Will the Greens ever be brave enough to stand alone?"

      You mean, in perpetual Opposition?

      While I would wish that for Abbott's Libs, it's not the way that the consensus required of competing groups in coalition allows parties to function.

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    9. rachael watkins

      Nurse

      In reply to David Arthur

      Can you please explain why the greens cant stand as an opposing political party like the Liberal and Labour parties? Or is it that they just wont get enough votes to get in so they just aim to get seats so at least they have some influence? I dont really understand how it works.

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    10. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to rachael watkins

      My understanding is that the Greens stand as a political Party at elections. By definition, this means they are opposing all other political Parties.

      An explanation for Australia's preferential voting system is at a website run by a Malcolm Farnsworth, http://australianpolitics.com/voting/electoral-system/preferential-voting
      There's more information about Mr Farnsworth himself at http://australianpolitics.com/about

      Cheers.

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    11. rachael watkins

      Nurse

      In reply to David Arthur

      Thanks David. Wow, I have been so ignorant. So much to learn.
      I dont understand why all the states dont do optional preferential voting. It seems the only way to get a true idea of who people are actually voting for. Anyway I am still learning, so thanks for the links. I will have to read up so i can give a more informed opinion on this and on this fellow Greg Barnes.

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  5. Mark O'Connor

    Author

    Assange's appointment of Geg Barns as his campaign director may give him an influential ally outside parliament, but further diminishes the chances of his beng an asset to those new parties like the Stable Population Party which seek to question the dominant paradigm. Barns, despite some admirable small-L liberal views on social issues, is with the business Right on economic matters.

    The last thing we need is another party dedicated to growth at all costs, but Barns, who is likely to become influential if Assange gets a Senate seat, is an extreme believer in the views of the growthist propagandist Philippe Legrain. (See http://candobetter.net/node/209).

    A dubious choice, Julian!

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    1. Max Baker

      Lecturer at University of Sydney

      In reply to Mark O'Connor

      I agree Mark, Greg Barnes is an interesting choice. Perhaps ‘freedom of information’ is as appealing for the right as it is for the left. In the later, it is a way of holding those in power accountable for their actions while in the former it connects to the libertarian view that the governing process should resemble a type of perfectly free market. In the libertarian vision Wikileaks is a way of reducing the power and size of governments more generally. Of course the paradox is that large opaque corporations end up filling the void left by the retreat of the state.

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    2. Mark O'Connor

      Author

      In reply to Max Baker

      That's exactly right, Max. Assange may not realise what he is letting himself in for, by getting hooked up with Barns.

      There are pro-business libertarians who sincerely believe in the right of everyone, but especially those with capital, to do much as they please. The recent book Big Australia? Yes/No, by Mark O'Connor, Jessica Brown and Oliver Hartwich, Pantera Press 2012 is a debate between myself and two members of a libertarian unit called the Centre for Independent Studies. They were quite…

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  6. David Smith

    Retired

    Haven't we forgotten one thing? Once he steps out of the Ecuadorian Embassy, won't he be arrested by the British police and extradited to Sweden. How will a Senate seat save him from that?

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