A local lad

By Barbara Gunnell

July 8, 2011

From Townsville, the North Queensland coastal town where Julian Assange was born, it is about 20 minutes by ferry to Magnetic Island, where the young Assange spent what he has described as a “Tom Sawyer” kind of childhood in the 1970s and 1980s. “I had my own horse. I built my own raft. I went fishing. I was going down mine shafts and tunnels,” he told the New Yorker last year. His mother, Christine Assange, has written of a free, hippy existence there, “going native” as she put it, bringing up a young child in a wooden hut on one of the island’s bays and protecting fruit from raiding possums.

Magnetic Island was named by Captain Cook for what he wrongly assumed were its compass-distorting mineral properties. Now the place exerts a magnetic attraction for middle-class dreamers, many of whom work on the mainland but live on “Maggie”. A Townsville man, maybe recalling the island’s former Bohemian reputation, warned me that Maggie islanders were typically “alkies” and “potheads”, but I saw no evidence of hippiedom when I visited.

I asked a couple of island residents what they thought of the area’s connection with “the most dangerous man in the world”, the title of a just-published book by Australian journalist Andrew Fowler. They laughed and told me stories of proposals for memorials to honour Townsville and Magnetic Island’s illustrious son. I was sure they were having me on when they told me of one suggestion to install a French-style “pissoir” which would acknowledge Assange’s website’s celebrated leaking. But, yes, such a scheme was proposed some time last year, though, sadly, there were no signs that it was going ahead.

There is a jokey pride in Assange’s fame but it is far from adulatory. A future historian may note that the release in July 2010 of 90,000 Afghanistan war classified documents (the first of WikiLeaks’ major US military releases) was recorded in the Townsville Bulletin with the laconic headline “Rogue website author local lad”.

In the months that followed, Assange became, with dizzying speed, both international celebrity and global public enemy. By October 2010, the Iraqi war logs had been released; the following month Swedish prosecutors sought Assange’s arrest after accusations of sexual assault. Two weeks after that, the leaked frank assessments of US diplomats about the world’s rulers had started to be published in newspapers around the globe. In February this year, a UK court ordered that Assange could be extradited to Sweden for questioning. His legal team appealed. When he returns to the High Court next week to continue his fight against extradition he will have been under what Geoffrey Robertson QC has called “mansion arrest” for more than six months.

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