“An Awkward Problem”: Julian Assange and the Australian dog that didn’t bark

by Philip Dorling and Rex Patrick | Apr 13, 2024 | Government, Latest Posts

Joe Biden says he’s “considering” an end to the prosecution of Julian Assange. Anthony Albanese says, “enough is enough,” but not much else. Rex Patrick and Philip Dorling discuss the latest developments in the Assange case.

Supporters of Julian Assange were encouraged on Thursday by US President Joe Biden’s off-the-cuff- remark that his administration was “considering” an Australian request to end the espionage prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder.

Assange’s spouse, Stella Assange, called on Biden to “do the right thing” and “drop the charges”. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia was using “diplomatic efforts at every level to communicate that it is time that this was brought to a close, enough is enough.”

However, getting to the bottom of what governments do in the secretive world of diplomacy can often be akin to investigating a murder mystery. The clues are elusive and fragmentary. In the case of imprisoned Australian journalist Julian Assange, it’s a case of a dog that didn’t bark.

Parliamentary action

Media reports attributed the apparent shift in the US position to Albanese’s support for a parliamentary motion moved by independent MP Andrew Wilkie on February 14 that declared the Assange extradition proceedings have “gone on for too long” and “underline[d] the importance of the UK and USA bringing the matter to a close so that Mr Assange can return home to his family in Australia”.

Wilkie motion

Assange House Of Representatives Motion passed on 14 February 2024.

Albanese said his government had supported the motion “because it is the right thing to do.” He added that he had raised the Assange case “at the highest levels” with the US and UK with “a calibrated and deliberate approach” that included discussions with Assange’s lawyers. In that context, the parliamentary resolution was “important… it’s important to send that message.”

Quiet diplomacy

It’s one thing to express support for “bringing the matter to a close”; but what does that mean in practice? For Assange supporters, it means the US dropping the prosecution and Assange returning to Australia as a free man.

However, the Albanese Government’s understanding and expectations are likely rather different.

FOI inquiries by Rex Patrick over the past eighteen months have shown that the Albanese Government’s track record on the Assange case has been patchy at best. The government’s “quiet diplomacy” has been minimalist. FOI applications directed toward the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including Australia’s Embassy in Washington,

have revealed little evidence of concerted diplomatic activity, indeed quite the contrary.

Documents show no sign Albanese government lobbied the US to bring Julian Assange home

This isn’t to say that Albanese hasn’t raised the Assange case at the “highest levels.” He undoubtedly has, but it’s likely involved mentioning it as a politically awkward problem rather than a push to secure Assange’s freedom.

In response Secretary of State Antony Blinken made it publicly clear the US Government was most reluctant to intervene in the Justice Department’s prosecutorial process – an issue of obvious political sensitivity given the criminal charges brought against former president Donald Trump.

FOI inquiries also unearthed briefings for Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus that revealed a clear Australian Government policy to limit direct engagement on the Assange case until after he has been extradited to the United States, put to trial, convicted, sentenced and exhausted all appeal rights. Only then could Assange apply under the International Transfer of Prisoners scheme to serve a sentence of imprisonment in Australia. Only then would the Attorney-General formally consider that possibility.

Jail, then jail, and more jail. Labor’s Assange strategy revealed.

That’s the position behind the Government’s careful words about bringing the matter to a close.

At no point has the Australian Government called publicly for the espionage charges to be dropped and the extradition process to be ended.

A plea deal?

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported the US Justice Department has been considering a proposed plea deal with Assange, dropping the espionage charges and allowing him to admit to a misdemeanour concerning the mishandling of classified documents.

According to the Journal the Justice Department was exploring ways to end the long London court battle as Assange continues to fight against extradition. It isn’t clear whether the move for a plea deal has come from Justice or Assange’s legal team. In any case, Assange’s lawyers said they’d been “given no indication” of any change in the US position.

President Biden may have been referring to the question of a plea deal as much as any representations from the Australian Parliament.

A plea deal might well be under consideration, but it’s clearly not a done deal yet, and a radical reduction in the charges, with Assange walking free in London and his time in His Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh taken into account, sounds like a big ask.

That dog ain’t barking…

One thing’s clear, however, Albanese hasn’t followed up on the parliamentary resolution with any personal diplomatic push on the Assange case.

One might have thought that Albanese would have directly engaged President Biden or else directed new representations across the top levels of the US Administration.

If that were the case, one would expect Albanese’s own Department to be closely engaged, working with DFAT and the Australian Embassy in Washington. Albanese is a careful, process-driven prime minister, so one would expect there to be PM&C briefing papers and correspondence. If absolutely nothing else one would expect there to be a Parliamentary Question Time Brief.

With such expectations, on March 7, 2024, Rex Patrick submitted a new FOI application for access to “PM&C submissions, talking points or other documents provided to Prime Minister Albanese between 1 February 2024 and 29 February 2024 that refer or relate to Julian Assange”.

Yesterday, the same day as Albanese’s latest comments that his government was using “all of our diplomatic efforts at every level”, PM&C provided their FOI response.

Dave Titheridge, head of the Department’s Global Interests Branch, advised: “I am refusing your request for access … as the documents you have requested do not exist”.

Assange FOI response

FOI Response From Prime Minister and Cabinet.

PM&C conducted an extensive search, including through its email system, Parliamentary Document Management System and electronic records repository and turned up nothing.

Nothing happening here – either before or after the parliamentary resolution.

Zero, zip, zilch, nada.

What’s next?

So, where does this leave Assange? His appeal options in London are nearly at an end. Perhaps his lawyers will finally get lucky. Perhaps President Biden is “considering” his case. Perhaps there will be a plea deal.

But Assange may well be extradited and spend decades rotting in a US maximum security prison. He might die there. He could also eventually come home, but as a prisoner in shackles, not as a free man.

Whatever happens, however, it won’t be down to a big effort – or barking – from the Albanese Government.

Philip Dorling has some thirty years of experience of high-level political, public policy and media work, much of that at the Australian Parliament.

He has worked in the Australian political environment from most angles, in both the national and state levels of government including as a senior executive; as a senior policy adviser for the Federal Labor Opposition and for cross bench Senators; and as an award-winning journalist in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader - www.transparencywarrior.com.au.

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