SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Anthony Albanese should avoid the Julian Assange sideshow. The WikiLeaks founder is no hero

Simon Birmingham
The Nightly
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Julian Assange for more than a decade has been for some a cause-celebre of press freedom. For others, he’s a traitor.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Julian Assange for more than a decade has been for some a cause-celebre of press freedom. For others, he’s a traitor. Credit: YUICHI YAMAZAKI, AFP

Roll up, roll up. The circus is coming to town! The circus is what will inevitably become of Julian Assange’s return to Australia.

After years of evasion, Assange has finally faced criminal charges.

He pleaded guilty before a court in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, a western Pacific outpost of the US that most had probably never heard of.

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Then it’s straight to Canberra apparently, so that he can give a press conference before the national press gallery.

The panting of some media is already in fever pitch, waiting to hear directly from Assange for the first time since his Eva Peron-esque appearances on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.

Assange for more than a decade has been for some a cause-celebre of press freedom. For others, he’s a traitor.

As is most often the case in such high-profile and divisive situations, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

The views of people on Assange seem so entrenched there is little hope of rational, objective discussion.

But, for the record, I do not view his release of thousands upon thousands of secret US documents, without curation or editing, as anything vaguely approaching responsible journalism. But it did certainly raise his public profile.

What is absolutely certain, whatever your views on Assange, is that you are unlikely to escape his presence over the coming days and weeks as he returns to Australia. Even though I wonder if the everyday Australian really cares.

As we enter this inescapable fray, the circus would already seem to be in full flight with performers lining up to share the spotlight in the centre ring.

Assange was joined in Saipan by former prime minister and now our Ambassador to the US, Kevin Rudd, whose own government was on the end of some embarrassment in the Wikileaks saga.

With Assange’s unexpected court hearing happening so suddenly, Mr Rudd must’ve performed some fancy high-wire work to get to Saipan so quickly. Questions about the cost to taxpayers are no doubt to come.

Assange, ever since he boarded a private jet to Saipan, has been accompanied by Australia’s UK High Commissioner and former foreign minister in the Rudd Labor government, Stephen Smith. That’s the same Mr Smith who in 2010 called Assange’s actions risky and described them as contrary to Australia’s interests.

It’s rumoured that Prime Minister Albanese will meet Assange on his arrival in Canberra.

*** BESTPIX *** SAIPAN, NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS - JUNE 26: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is joined by Kevin Rudd, Australian Ambassador to the U.S. as he arrives to the United States Courthouse where he is expected to enter a guilty plea to an espionage charge ahead of his expected release on June 26, 2024 in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands. Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, was to appear before the U.S. District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands in Saipan on Wednesday for a change of plea hearing. Following his expected guilty plea to a felony charge under the Espionage Act, Assange is anticipated to be sentenced to time served and subsequently released, paving the way for his return to Australia after years of incarceration. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is joined by Kevin Rudd, Australian Ambassador to the U.S. as he arrives to the United States Courthouse. Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Mr Albanese should rule out meeting with Assange.

While it is good that the legal saga is finally over, Assange is no hero and should not be feted as a hard-done by political prisoner.

He is not Cheng Lei who was unjustly held in a Chinese prison for three years.

He is not Sean Turnell, indefensibly held in Myanmar for 650 days.

He is not Kylie Moore-Gilbert, barbarically held in an Iranian prison for more than two years.

These three were, without question, political prisoners. They were held in prisons by repressive regimes or opaque systems for political reasons. Hostage diplomacy they call it.

They didn’t have access to a transparent rule of law with courts of justice that would give them a fair hearing and rights to appeal their alleged “crimes”.

In contrast, the Assange saga went on for so long because at every turn he avoided facing justice in an open court.

Remember Assange skipping bail in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges by entering the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he dodged court for seven years?

Yes, Sweden. Hardly a despotic regime.

When Ecuador finally evicted him, Assange was imprisoned for breaching bail and ultimately, facing extradition to the US, he then spent five years pursuing appeal after appeal to once again avoid facing the charges against him.

Julian Assange on a private plane approaching Bangkok airport for layover.
Julian Assange is now free. Credit: WikiLeaks/X formerly Twitter

That was his right. Sweden, the UK and the US are all countries that adhere to the rule of law.

Those very rights Assange had access to and exercised were not something available to Cheng Lei, Sean Turnell and Kylie Moore-Gilbert.

No doubt we are about to hear Assange in press conferences and “exclusive” interviews proclaim his innocence and claim to have been persecuted.

Instead, he should ditch the victim card and ponder what might have happened if he had simply faced his day in court in Sweden and in the US.

Consider Chelsea Manning, who provided Assange with the secret documents he published, and was released way back in 2017 after serving seven years in prison.

That’s significantly less than the 12 years Assange spent dodging trial but holed up in Ecuador’s embassy or a UK jail. Ironic, isn’t it?

Finally, the Assange circus may be coming back home, but my advice is to stay away from sideshow alley.

Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Minister

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