WACA is publishing this article because we believe that the issues raised by the attacks on Wikileaks and Julian Assange are beyond left and right politics and a concern to all citizens around the world, this article demonstrates that point very well.
I recently put the proposition, to a senior frontbencher inFederal Parliament, that the WikiLeaks horse had bolted,and that shutting down Julian Assange could not reverse a fundamental shift in the balance of power towards the citizens and away from the institutions that govern them.
His response was: ”The Catholic Church shut down Galileo for a hundred years. I think we can shut down Julian Assange.”
I now find myself in the uncomfortable position, as a fairly unreconstructed conservative, of being in furious agreement with the Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young. I make no judgment on the merits of the Swedish extradition proceedings that Assange is defending in London. I do regret that this unquestionably gutsy Queenslander is being required to take on the entire global ”establishment” with one hand tied behind his back.
Those proceedings should not obscure the much bigger question that Assange and WikiLeaks are posing to the world. It is not my primary objective to give the ALP a touch-up here. The US right – whom I broadly support – have been equally reactionary and thin-skinned.
Assange is forcing us to rethink our assumptions about how much protection the ordinary person needs from the truth. He is arguing that the democratic project was founded on the principles of transparency and trust but has been overtaken by a culture of secrecy and spin.
Assange has formed the view that the powerful institutions that guide our destiny will not change unless they are forced to change. He is playing what he calls ”the forced move” in chess, when there is no other move left to make.
Assange is committed to closing the gap between what our leaders say and what they mean by holding up a mirror and saying, ”this is what you look like in private”.
Let me make it clear where my sympathies and prejudices lie.
I voted to commit Australian troops to Afghanistan. I supported the ”Bush doctrine” of pre-emptive defence. I was disappointed Condoleezza Rice did not run for the Republican nomination to be president and I think Dick Cheney is a great man. But I support Julian Assange, I am ashamed of the treatment he has received from our government and I don’t want the Australian right to abandon him the way the ALP and the American right have.
It is interesting to contrast Julia Gillard’s response to Andrew Wilkie, now the independent member for Denison. Wilkie’s principal claim to fame is that he leaked state secrets, which he came across while employed as an analyst in the Office of National Assessments.
The ONA leak was intended to damage the Howard government’s rationale for Australian involvement in Iraq, so it was greeted by the ALP as an act of heroism. The ALP’s response was to give Wilkie the preferences required to get elected to Parliament, to invite him to join an ALP/Green/independent alliance and to offer to pass whistleblower legislation to protect him and people like him.
By contrast, Gillard’s response to the US diplomatic cables leak is that ”the foundation of WikiLeaks is an illegal act”. But six weeks after this assertion was made, no one has named a law which was broken.
The recklessness of such a statement is compounded by the fact that this Australian citizen is defending criminal allegations in a foreign court.
As Assange faces those extradition proceedings, the senior leadership of the most powerful nation is arguing that he be ”hunted down as a terrorist”. Sarah Palin is behaving like a screaming banshee on her way to a stoning. At the moment in Assange’s life when the value of Australian citizenship must really count, Gillard wanders out of her office with a chainsaw and starts hacking off the branch on which this Australian citizen is precariously perched.
This is a moment in history. I say the WikiLeaks horse has bolted because Assange represents something much bigger than WikiLeaks. For 1500 of the past 2000 years, knowledge was tightly held by a tiny elite who had access to higher learning. The invention of the printing press, and the explosion of literacy that followed the Reformation, saw that circle of knowledge expand rapidly.
The arrival of the internet, with its ability not just to reach a wider audience instantly, but to recruit millions of people to the task of collecting, correcting and disseminating knowledge (Wikipedia) has seen an irreversible shift and devolution in power.
WikiLeaks may be criticised as immoral for encouraging people to leak – or indeed hack into – material, despite an obligation of confidentiality. I was impressed that M. K. Gandhi refused to accept leaked material when conducting the early citizens’ inquiries into landlord abuses in Champaran. His argument was that the transparency benefits of the leaked material were outweighed by the damage to culture and governance of endorsing the deceptive act of leaking.
There must be risks involved in the fact that many trusted sources will have stopped talking privately to the US about what is happening in the world.
While I have these and other concerns about elements of the Assange ”forced move”, I also believe it gives us a chance to reflect on some of our assumptions about the need for secrecy. Let’s not miss this opportunity because of momentary embarrassment or because it was forced on us by a source we don’t control. Australia should lead the world in the level of trust we place in our citizens.
The democratic project needs constant renewal. We should give the WikiLeaks critique the time and respect it deserves.
Ross Cameron January 13, 2011
Ross Cameron is a former federal Liberal Party MP.
sourced online: 13/01/2011: http://www.nationaltimes.com.au/opinion/politics/cant-hide-love-for-wikileaks-20110112-19o1w.html