Assange: Journalist, Activist, Fugitive … Senator?


Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks and political fugitive, is assembling a coalition from all shades of the political spectrum to support his campaign to become a senator at the September federal election. Alex Mitchell reports on his chances.

Holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, on the other side of the world, Julian Assange seemingly faces an impossible task to mount a credible campaign to be elected to the Australian Senate.

Don't be so sure. The internet is global, instantaneous and is oblivious to the tyranny of distance.

Since going into voluntary incarceration at the Ecuadorean Embassy in Knightsbridge in July last year, the 41-year-old Australian has devoted weeks, days and hours organising his tilt at one of Victoria's Senate seats.

Six of the 12 are up for grabs on September 14.

Prior to meeting him at the embassy last year, I was told that Assange had devised the election strategy for self-publicity and building legal protection against prosecution by Swedish and US authorities.

But Assange quickly dispelled this media speculation and convinced me that he wanted to make a serious attempt at a Canberra career.

It wasn't a publicity stunt or a protest, he explained, but a deliberate change of employment to promote his version of people's democracy and to push the boundaries of internet freedom.

His opponents – and he has many – have been combing the electoral laws and the Constitution to see whether he can be disqualified from the ballot paper.

So far they have been luckless. According to the Constitution the only impediments to standing for public office are if the candidate faces charges of treason or is convicted or about to be sentenced "for any offence in Australia" penalised by a year or more term of imprisonment.

Being a political refugee in a foreign embassy and campaigning in absentia doesn't present fatal objections either, according to Assange's legal advisers.

A quota for election of a senator is around 16 per cent of the State vote or, after distribution of preferences, some 450,000 votes.

This is where Assange's election bid becomes interesting. At the 2004 election Steve Fielding of the Family First Party received just 2,519 first preference votes, or 0.08 per cent of Victoria's total Senate vote.

However, he was elected after the distribution of preferences which flowed from a pre-election deal he made with the Victorian Labor Party. Fielding crept over the line to serve eight years in the Senate supporting conservative causes.

At the 2010 Senate election in Victoria, the sixth and last candidate elected was John Madigan representing the Democratic Labor Party, a largely Catholic party which has been moribund for decades.

Madigan received just over 75,000 primary votes (2.34 per cent of the total) but went on to obtain more than 500,000 votes after preference allocations.

Naturally, Assange strategists are focused on not only building a competitive primary vote but also attracting a swag of preferences from disgruntled Labor voters, Greens, former Australian Democrats and even Liberal libertarians.

When GetUp!, Australia's internet-based political lobbying group, sought signatures for a protest petition on behalf of Assange it received more than 50,000 online votes. Not all of them lived in Victoria where he studied at Melbourne University but the base support was encouraging.

While most States have a sitting Green or Independent senator in September's election contest, Victoria has three Labor and three Coalition senators up for re-election.

Labor is certain to lose one seat after recent polling shows its primary vote at about 30 per cent; the ALP would need more than 43 per cent to re-elect its three senators.

The contest for Victoria's sixth senate spot is where the Assange camp is focused. Unfortunately for him, the Greens and other independents are battling for the same political space.

The pragmatists in the Assange team recognise the importance of deal-making over preferences. Preliminary talks have already been held with the Victorian Greens over a mutual exchange of preferences.

The two parties are locked in a deadly embrace: Assange needs Green preferences if he is to enter the Senate and the Greens need Assange's second-choice votes if their candidate is to win.

The national campaign director of the WikiLeaks Party is Greg Barns, former Liberal staffer and barrister who has worked for ex-NSW Premiers Nick Greiner and John Fahey and John Howard's Government.

He was the political campaign director for the Australian Republican Movement during the defeated referendum in 1999, and he followed prominent Liberal MP, Malcolm Turnbull, as chair of ARM in 2000.

In the publicity and promotional team, Assange has supporters such as the award-winning journalist and filmmaker John Pilger plus high-profile writers, lawyers and academics.

In an election which will be a fiercely fought confrontation between Julia Gillard's ALP and Tony Abbott's Coalition there is no margin for voter error. Consequently, there will be little room for third parties and maverick independents.

Julian Assange is planning to be the exception to the rule.

Alex Mitchell is a journalist and author of Come The Revolution: A Memoir. View his full profile here.

 

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