Julian Assange has been trapped in Ecuador's embassy in London for six months. Will he ever come out? He spoke to Philip Dorling.
JULIAN Assange remains holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. By any assessment his circumstances are extraordinary.
He has been granted diplomatic asylum on the grounds he is at risk of extradition to the US to face conspiracy or other charges arising from WikiLeaks obtaining thousands of secret US military and diplomatic reports leaked by US Army soldier Bradley Manning.
Julian Assange speaks at the Ecuadorean embassy in London earlier this year. Photo: AFP
But Assange can't leave the embassy. British police are waiting outside to arrest him on the spot so he can be extradited to Sweden to face questioning about allegations of sexual assault.
He remains convinced extradition to Sweden would facilitate his eventual extradition to the US.
So Assange has been cooped up in the embassy for six months. It's a Mexican, or rather an Ecuadorean stand-off and he doesn't envisage going anywhere soon.
When interviewed by Fairfax Media this week, Assange was fairly nonchalant about his circumstances, saying "one gets used to things, other people are in much harsher conditions than I am" and it was "certainly preferable to solitary confinement in Sweden or the United States''.
But Assange clearly finds his circumstances oppressive.
He complains about the British police's close surveillance of the embassy and their practice of seeking names and addresses of people who visit him.
''They're squatting on the front door demanding the identity of everyone who comes in; it's an outrageous violation of diplomatic practice,'' he says.
He also acknowledges he has to take "great precaution and diligence" preserving the confidentiality of his work in a very confined and probably quite transparent environment.
All this is very different from the expansive and optimistic atmosphere in Stockholm, from where he emailed me on the evening of Sunday, August 22, 2010, the day after the Australian federal election.
Australian politics was hanging in the balance. Julia Gillard's Labor government had endured a severe reversal, suffering a 5 per cent swing in the primary vote and losing 11 seats, although Tony Abbott's Coalition looked like it would fall short of a parliamentary majority. Both sides were already contemplating negotiations with the clutch of independents to determine who would sit on the Treasury benches in the new parliament.
In this context, Assange's email read: "I'm not sure how this can be conveyed, gently, but we are sitting on documents of significant moment pertaining to the activities of Labor leaders, their cronies and their security staff; behaviour that would be perceived by the public to be close to, or actually, treasonous. We would like to hear clear signals about why we should or should not release these now. Which government will protect the free press and whistle-blowers more?"
In the previous month WikiLeaks had attracted huge international attention as it published tens of thousands of secret US military reports on the war in Afghanistan, winning public plaudits but also attracting strident condemnation from the US government.
During the Australian election campaign both the Labor government and Coalition opposition attacked WikiLeaks as "grossly irresponsible" and openly canvassed revoking Assange's Australian passport on national security grounds.
It was rumoured WikiLeaks had more material, possibly thousands of classified US diplomatic cables that could be more politically significant, indeed explosive, than the so-called Afghan war logs.
Assange's email on that Sunday evening suggested he might drop a bombshell into the finely balanced Australian political scene.
Then near the peak of his global fame, he was keen to be a player in Australian politics. However, he was also thinking hard about what the effect would be. What would the consequences be of damaging the standing of the battered Labor government? Would that advance his own political agenda of campaigning against official secrecy and for increased government transparency?
As it happens, Assange decided against jump-starting the WikiLeaks' "Cablegate" release by dumping some 1400 secret US embassy reports on Australian politics, and foreign policy.
The reasons for this hesitation are not clear, although Assange's embroilment in sexual assault allegations in Sweden and his increasingly tense relations with his primary European media partner, The Guardian newspaper, were probably the main factors.
Whatever the reasoning, the Australian component of Cablegate was not released and published by Fairfax Media until early December 2010, some seven weeks after Prime Minister Gillard had negotiated the parliamentary majority that keeps her government in office.
Nonetheless, it's an interesting historical "what if" to consider what might have been the political impact if WikiLeaks had released the US embassy cables during the tightly contested 2010 election campaign or the negotiations that followed the poll.
Two years on, Assange is still keenly interested in Australian politics and perhaps more determined than ever - despite his complex and problematic circumstances - to advance his political agenda, this time by direct entry into electoral politics. Of course, many would argue the WikiLeaks publisher is in no position to contemplate running for public office.
In Canberra, senior government officials are openly dismissive of WikiLeaks, saying the transparency group is "broken" and "effectively moribund" and Assange has no alternative other than to eventually surrender himself and be put on a plane to Stockholm.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr publicly insists Assange is entitled to the same "consular assistance" available to other Australians in legal difficulties overseas.
Privately, however, at least two senior federal Labor ministers have bluntly dismissed Assange as "an alleged rapist trying to avoid justice".
But the WikiLeaks chief advances a much more positive assessment of his circumstances, dismissing critics including Carr as "self-interested apologists for the US" and arguing WikiLeaks' and his own "trajectory over the past four months [have] been increasingly positive".
In defence of WikiLeaks' continuing relevance he points out his group continues to publish confidential material, with more than 1 million emails and documents in the course of this year, including major disclosures from the private intelligence company Stratfor and confidential Syrian government emails.
He also argues that considerable resources have been devoted to, and progress made in working around, the financial embargo imposed on WikiLeaks by major credit card and money transfer corporations.
However, it's Assange's continuing interest in playing a political role in Australia that may prove to be the main focus for him and WikiLeaks in 2013.
Assange says plans to form and register an Australian WikiLeaks party are now ''significantly advanced''.
He also intends to be a candidate for the Senate and says "a number of very worthy people admired by the Australian public" have indicated their availability to stand for the party.
Assange hasn't yet registered to vote but believes he is able to fulfil the requirements to register in either New South Wales or Victoria as an overseas voter and that a "strategic decision" would determine in which state he would be a candidate.
Initial preparations for the WikiLeaks party have been co-ordinated by Assange's biological father, John Shipton, and a draft party constitution has been prepared and is being subjected to legal review. Party registration with the Australian Electoral Commission will require confirmation of at least 500 members who are listed on the electoral roll.
WikiLeaks' internet presence includes a Twitter account with nearly 1.7 million followers worldwide and a Facebook page with more than 2.1 million "likes". The formation of "Friends of WikiLeaks" groups over the past year may also provide channels to engage and mobilise Australian supporters, especially but not exclusively younger, IT-savvy voters. Assange says he's "quite encouraged" by published polls during the past two years that show significant support for WikiLeaks. He also talks positively about the increasing activity of pro-WikiLeaks activists, emphasising that "increasing organisational strength, evident over the past six months, will flow into the election campaign''.
Opinion polls in May and August by UMR Research, the company the Labor Party uses for its internal polling, suggest Assange could be a competitive Senate candidate in either NSW or Victoria.
In an interview in October, Shipton hinted Assange may run for a Senate seat in NSW, saying his son would make a particularly good foil for Foreign Minister Carr, who will also be contesting the 2013 election.
''I think Julian shows considerable skill in putting together a diplomatic sentence and would be a good opponent for Mr Carr,'' Shipton said.
Such a contest may provide interesting theatre, and Assange has indicated he'd be keen to debate with Gillard or Carr.
However, the practical reality is Assange would most likely be in direct competition with the Australian Greens for the last of six seats up for grabs in either NSW or Victoria in a half-Senate election. His real opponents may be Greens Senate candidates Cate Faehrmann in NSW or Janet Rice in Victoria.
Former SBS journalist Mary Kostakidis, a strong WikiLeaks supporter not directly involved in preparations to form the new party, says Assange could contribute much to the debate in a federal election campaign.
"A Senate campaign could highlight the issues - after all, scrutiny, transparency and accountability are the remit of the Senate," she says.
"I think he would have widespread support in the cyber community, which is not just populated by the young. He has a forensic mind, is driven by a passion for truth and justice and attracts people around him who are similarly motivated. He is resourceful and resilient. He doesn't lack perseverance."
That said, there will also be a close focus on whoever is selected as the No. 2 WikiLeaks candidate on a Senate ticket, because that person would presumably be the most likely nominee if Assange did secure a Senate quota but was unable to take his seat.
The other potential wild card is whether Assange and WikiLeaks are able to publish any new revelations that would have a political impact on the election campaign.
Assange says he anticipates publishing more confidential material next year than the 1 million emails and documents released by WikiLeaks in 2012. He may well be keeping some powder dry for the electoral contest ahead and may yet deliver another bombshell.
Most political commentators will no doubt dismiss Assange's Senate campaign as another quixotic stunt by a figure on the margins of Australian politics. But it may be that he will have a significant impact on the future make-up of the Australian Senate. After all, there can be no doubt that Julian Assange continues to surprise.
Philip Dorling is an investigative journalist.