The Australian politicians pushing for Assange’s release represents a rare crack in the wall of bipartisan support for the sacrosanct alliance.
This week, a delegation of Australian politicians will venture across the Pacific to campaign for the immediate release of Julian Assange. The group, which takes in representatives from the Nationals, Liberals, Greens and independents, will meet with their congressional counterparts and other administration officials to plead Assange’s case.
They go armed with a letter signed by more than 60 Australian federal representatives, warning that Assange’s extradition to the United States – pursued by both Trump and Biden – would cause “outcry” in Australia.
This moment in what is now over a decade of campaigning to free Assange also represents an extremely rare crack in the otherwise apparently impenetrable wall of bipartisan support for Australia’s alliance with the United States.
At the highest levels of Australian politics, from the prime minister down, the alliance has become sacrosanct. As the successful efforts to squash grassroots opposition to Aukus in the Labor party demonstrate, support for the alliance and ever-deepening security enmeshment is now embedded in the major parties. Indeed, it is celebrated as both the necessary and rational choice in an ever more threatening world. To this end, former Labor defence minister and Labor party stalwart Kim Beazley has described nuclear powered submarines as “a core Labor value and a critical part of the party’s platform to support both deterrence and self-reliance”.
Australian governments have long been insecure about the alliance, desperate for validation and reassurance to the point where they will enthusiastically commit to American wars before even being asked. In that context, this government’s failure to do anything of substance about Assange, and its embrace of the Aukus pact, are hardly surprising. What is different for the Labor party now is the apparent outright victory of the hawks, and of the dangerously and embarrassingly simplistic crowing that anything less than full-throated support for the American alliance amounts, in the term used by the minister for defence industry, Pat Conroy, to “appeasement”.
It is this fatal combination of adulation and insecurity that has so far stymied any real progress for Assange.
The somewhat understandable faith in what president Joe Biden calls the “better angels” of America runs deep in Australia, but it means operating in an aspirational dream rather than in the much harsher realities of America today. Perhaps more confronting for longtime Labor supporters, that faith has now been entirely eclipsed by a more craven support for American power however and wherever it is now employed.
When the deputy prime minister and minister for defence, Richard Marles, said in 2022 that the security relationship had gone from “interoperable” to “interchangeable”, for example, he gave expression to that uncomfortable truth: it’s not that the Australian government is inadvertently handing over Australian sovereignty, as some critics have claimed – it’s that they are doing it willingly, driven by an uncritical faith in American power, as opposed to American values.
It is that proximity to power – not, as Marles claimed in the same speech, “the shared values we have as two democracies” – that is “fundamental” to the alliance.
In his lonely challenge to American power, Assange loudly revealed that fundamental hypocrisy. He dared to challenge American power by exposing its willingness to breach its own apparently fundamental values – something admirers of that power cannot fathom doing. In this framing, it becomes entirely unsurprising that successive Australian governments would only reluctantly, if at all, support an Australian citizen subject to the exercise of that unaccountable power.
The reluctance to challenge is not born just of insecurity, as is commonly assumed. It is also born of shared interests in the maintenance of American hegemony.
That is why this small delegation to the United States in support of Assange is so important – not because of its potential impact on American thinking, which is minimal at best, but for its impact on an Australian domestic audience.
The alliance is about the mutual reinforcement of existing power structures that benefit those who already have power. It is not about the shared “value” of democracy; democratic accountability does not apply, after all, to matters of “national security” on either side of the Pacific, and both parties have an interest in keeping it that way (see: Chile).
The most effective way to challenge that power is, as it has always been, from the grassroots. A campaign that forces the Australian government into demanding, not just meekly requesting, the return of an Australian citizen to Australian soil offers the best hope not just for Assange, but for those of us who hold out some hope for a better role for this country in the world, too.
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