Editor’s Note: A five-time Walkley award-winning journalist, Monica Attard spent 28 years with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where she hosted PM, the World Today and Media Watch. She left to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, she published “Russia: Which Way Paradise?” about her time there as a correspondent.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard yet to comment on WikiLeaks asylum decision
In its decision, Ecuador cited a lack of support for Assange from his home country
Spokesman for Australian foreign minister says Assange has received consular assistance
On Twitter, many Australians are siding with Assange and calls for Australia to do more to help him
For a few hours before Ecuador’s announcement that it would grant the WikiLeaks founder political asylum, and for 12 hours after the announcement, #Assange trended on Twitter across Julian Assange’s homeland, Australia.
It was as though the void left by the London Olympics was filled by the oddly mesmerizing spectacle of a widely anticipated decision, well ahead of the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministers’ blistering critique of Great Britain, the United States and Sweden and the parlous situation in which the white-haired Assange finds himself.
As Assange’s supporters rallied in London outside the Ecuadorian Embassy where he has been holed up for 58 days, in Australia the political elite seemed to be scurrying to the safety of black letter law.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has made no comment in the wake of Ecuador’s decision and it’s unlikely she will, formally. In the political typhoon of the 24-hour news cycle she will no doubt be asked for her reaction to Ecuador’s clear belief that it is offering Assange support denied him by his own government.
Her response is expected to echo the PR-filtered offering of her usually loquacious – but suddenly media shy – Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr. His spokesperson told CNN that having watched events unfold through the night, the Assange drama has “elements of fascination, in particular the strong statements on the United States.”
Australia, he said, contemplated responding to the statements made by Ecuador. Instead it has decided to watch and wait because “nothing has changed.” Nor is it likely that the impasse might soon resolve, offered the spokesperson. In the meantime, the WikiLeaks founder “remains an Australian citizen who will receive consular support.”
Australia appears to be narrowly interpreting the Ecuadorian Foreign Minister’s statement that “… Mr Assange is without the due protection and help that he should receive from any state of which he is a citizen,” as an assertion that consular assistance has been denied.
“He has received 62 instances of consular contact in the last 18 months – more than any other Australian in comparable circumstances,” the spokesman said. “We don’t expect him to be thanking us, but to suggest he didn’t receive it is wrong.
“But we won’t engage in a yelling match. We remain where we are,” he added.
And that is, firmly behind Britain’s attempt to extradite Assange to Sweden to face questioning over alleged sexual assault and rape and alongside its friend in good and bad times, the United States, of which few questions have apparently been asked about its purported intention to prosecute Assange over the WikiLeaks release of confidential American diplomatic cables.
If Ecuador is persuaded that the U.S. poses a threat to Assange’s liberty and life, some Australians are persuaded that if the British government decides on the drastic option of storming the Ecuadorian Embassy, it can only be because America tells them to.
Julian Burnside, a leading human rights barrister took, to twitter to ask: “Will Aus also collaborate with USA attempts to get Assange?”
But Australia’s opposition, usually and expectedly enthusiastic when offered the chance to attack the government, is not taking the bait.
Opposition Coalition leader Tony Abbott offered yet more black letter law: “Whatever the ordinary law of Britain is, whatever would happen to anyone else in the same circumstances, Julian Assange should get identical treatment to anyone else in a similar position,” Abbott told the Nine television Network.
The only political solace Assange has received is from The Greens. But however powerful they are in Australia’s hung Federal Parliament, what they have to say on the standoff counts for little as the Gillard government works furiously to distance itself from claims that for helping to deliver it government, the Greens call the shots.
Still, the comments of Greens Senator Scott Ludlam are a reflection of what many Australians believe.
“I’ve been banging my head against this wall for the last eight months now trying to get a succession of foreign ministers to take even a faint spark of interest in what’s really happening here,” Senator Ludlam told the Australian Broacasting Corporation.
“What the Ecuadorian government has done here, in effect, is offer Julian Assange the protection the Australian Government has failed to do.”
“It’s time to pick up the phone” was his advice to the Australian Foreign Minister, issued during a press briefing.
If Twitter is the barometer of what Australians are feeling, many Australians agree with the Senator. But Assange has one perilous PR obstacle to overcome in the days ahead.
“My goodness, Assange is like a digital Jesus,” tweeted one well-known Australian comedian.
Assange’s decision to make a public statement at the doors of his London digs on Sunday, according to the WikiLeaks official Twitter feed, might trigger the disdain that historically comes with rising above the parapet in such a small nation.
In greater numbers, Australians might find themselves in agreement with soon-to-be former British MP Louise Mensch who tweeted: “He has incontrovertibly committed a criminal act here by violating his bail. And should be tried for it.”