Senate debates

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers


3:30 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research (Senator Evans) to a question without notice asked by Senator Ludlam today relating to Mr Julian Assange.

I put three very simple questions to the minister, who obviously—as this story has been very widely reported on this morning—should, quite frankly, have been better briefed. He should have been paid the respect by the Prime Minister's office of having some material to hand that would have directly addressed the questions. I am getting a little tired of hearing Australian government ministers, and indeed the Prime Minister—and the Deputy Prime Minister was at it again yesterday—

Senator Boswell interjecting

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On my left, order!

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

There was a noise; thank you, Mr Deputy President. They are insisting that they have provided full consular assistance for Julian Assange. Now, if consular assistance extends to pronouncing Mr Assange as having broken laws and the work of WikiLeaks as illegal, that is the kind of consular assistance you could do without. If it extends to the Attorney-General threatening to rip up Mr Assange's passport, that is also the kind of consular assistance you could probably do without if you were in the circumstances that Mr Assange is in. Our present Attorney-General saying that Mr Assange had fled Sweden was really not a helpful form of consular assistance and probably best done without.

I did not get to engage with Senator Evans on the substance of the question of why apologies have not been rendered to this Australian citizen, who is facing quite possibly extremely serious charges should the United States move to prosecute him. And there is evidence on the record that a grand jury was empanelled in late 2010 and then spent at least a year working on prosecutions potentially for espionage, for treason and for computer-hacking offences that could potentially lead to Mr Assange spending his life in a supermax prison in the United States. You would not have thought the situation was so serious from the strange shrieks and howls of derision that were echoing across the chamber when I put entirely sensible questions to Senator Evans earlier this afternoon.

What we are seeking—and let me be completely clear—is not consular assistance as though this were some form of regular case. We are seeking for the Australian government to establish whether such a prosecution and extradition to the United States is afoot or not. It is deadly simple. It is an unambiguous ask for the Australian government to simply establish whether there will be a prosecution or not and, if it turns out that there is, to stick up for the guy. For once, can we look after one of our own and not leave him exposed to the kinds of danger that he clearly is exposed to?

I am not sure that it is well understood in Australia just how toxic the media and political culture has become in the United States, a country still, I think, traumatised—and perhaps rightly so—by the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. Accusing an individual of terrorism in the United States carries a very severe resonance, and you do not throw around accusations of terrorism lightly in the media and political context in the United States at the moment. But of course, from the Vice President of the US down, that is exactly what has been occurring. These are not simply fringe voices from the far right, although quite clearly they are all over it, from former US vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who said that he should be targeted like the Taliban—that is helpful!—to Thomas Flanagan, former adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who said, 'I think Assange should be assassinated.' FOXNews commentator Eric Bolling said:

Assange should be put underground … He should be put in jail or worse, hanged in a public forum.

A Washington Times columnist, Jeffrey Kuhner—'Assassinate Assange' was the headline of this helpful and constructive piece—said that Assange 'poses a clear and present danger to American national security'.

These are extremely serious charges that are potentially about to be levelled by the US government against an Australian citizen. He is not, I believe—given the enormously prejudicial comments that have permeated the media environment in the United States—guaranteed of anything like a fair trial or even fair incarceration. Look at what alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning has been treated to for well over a year now, and for a long period of that time he was incarcerated in solitary confinement. That is what the WikiLeaks legal team believes Mr Assange will be exposed to if he is deported or extradited to the United States. Against the seriousness and gravity of doing that to a publishing organisation, the kinds of responses we received to what I think were entirely sensible questions during question time this afternoon and over preceding weeks are unhelpful and contemptuous. I invite the government to take another look at the side of history on which it is choosing to stand as it considers how to deal with the matter of Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks publishing organisation. I thank the Senate.

Question agreed to.