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The Assange show overshadows government problems

Julian Assange raises his arms and gives the thumbs up after landing in Canberra a free man. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

The Assange light and sound show overshadows government problems, writes political columnist MICHELLE GRATTAN.

As scripted political dramas go, Julian Assange’s (welcome) arrival in Canberra on Wednesday night would be hard to beat.

Michelle Grattan.

Even before Assange exited the plane, Anthony Albanese was on the phone in a pre-arranged call. Immediately afterwards the prime minister, often reluctant to disclose the content of phone calls, happily shared details of their conversation with the media at a mid-evening news conference in Parliament House.

“I was quite pleased to be the first person here who he spoke with, [it] was mutually worked out that that would occur,” Albanese said.

Earlier in the day, the Assange team had suggested he might appear at a late-night news conference at a nearby hotel. Instead, his lawyers, led by Jen Robinson, and his wife Stella spoke for him, explaining his plea bargain and casting the pursuit of him as an issue of press freedom.

Not far away at the US embassy, they sucked up the end of what has been, in many eyes, a lose-lose saga for the Americans.

The Assange team heaped credit on Albanese and his government. The prime minister – a long-time advocate for Assange – put the success down to patient diplomacy. “I’m an outcomes-based politician. I believe in making a difference. We can make a difference.”

The obvious story of Assange’s freedom is one of unflagging pressure brought by the Australian government. But that pressure wasn’t necessarily just on the US. It was likely also placed on Assange and his legal teams.

The diplomacy and lobbying undertaken by Albanese, his ministers, Australia’s Washington ambassador Kevin Rudd and others tilled the soil for the plea bargain deal. But the deal’s linchpin was Assange’s decision to plead guilty to an espionage charge. What role did the Australian side play in helping persuade him to do that?

Rudd, in an interview with the ABC, gave his insight into the process. He was asked if the Assange team took some convincing to agree to a guilty plea. He said: “If you stand back from the detail, what’s it ultimately a decision about?

“Do you allow this court case to go from extradition to substantive deliberation to appeal in the United States, to further appeal in the United States, with ultimately a Supreme Court case on the future of the [Constitution’s] first amendment, and the application of the first amendment’s principles on freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and does that apply to foreigners acting in a capacity like Mr Assange? Or do you cut a deal through a plea bargain?

“Working that through, sensitively, the system, not intruding into the autonomy of the parties, was what I think any professional diplomat would do.”

Assange was still bridling at having to plead guilty at Wednesday’s brief hearing in Saipan that gave him his freedom. The US Constitution’s first amendment and the Espionage Act “are in contradiction,” he said. At a Thursday press conference at Parliament House, Stella Assange redefined the guilty plea, saying Assange was “pleading guilty to committing journalism”.

Assange’s freedom has reopened a debate about whether he is, or is not, a journalist. Revealing a huge trove of secret information is what an investigative journalist would do. But critics say real journalists curate such material, redacting sensitive items that could endanger lives.

This argument is surely a journey up a definitional dry gully. Plenty of journalists don’t do desirable curating. It is an issue of ethics, not whether the person is or is not called a “journalist”.

After years of substantial support across the political divide for freeing Assange, by week’s end, the splits in opinion about him were more obvious. Coalition members criticised Albanese’s celebration of the moment (though Albanese has not endorsed Assange’s actions in publishing confidential US information).

As for Assange’s future, no doubt the “press freedom” campaign will continue. Beyond that, who knows? The trajectory of a man who ran for the Australian Senate while ensconced in London’s Ecuador embassy in 2013 is not easy to predict.

The PM would be wise to take the win and move on. In political terms, Assange could be sticky fly paper.

The Assange extravaganza overshadowed two other significant stories this week: an unhelpful inflation figure and the fallout from a Labor senator voting against her party.

Wednesday’s monthly figure for May showed inflation rising to an annual 4 per cent, from 3.6 per cent in April. How this should be interpreted is not entirely clear – the June quarterly figures, out in a month’s time (and just before the Reserve Bank board’s next meeting) will be more informative. But there was immediate speculation that there could be an interest rate rise in coming months, rather than (or perhaps ahead of) the hoped-for fall.

This was a downer for the government, just a day after Albanese at the weekly caucus meeting had urged his troops to spruik next week’s positive messages.

“Once these sitting weeks are over people should be well and truly out campaigning,” he said. “It’s very rare to have a date like July 1 where pay rises, tax and energy bill relief all start on the same date. Cost of living is overwhelmingly the number one issue and the critical weakness of Peter Dutton’s nuclear idea is the cost.”

Albanese has faced a tame, obedient caucus – a quite different beast from the one that, for instance, Bob Hawke had to contend with.

But on Tuesday WA senator Fatima Payman, a Muslim, assaulted the foundational caucus principle of solidarity when she crossed the floor on an (unsuccessful) Greens motion declaring “the need for the Senate to recognise the state of Palestine”.

Views within Labor polarised over how Payman should be, and was, handled.

Hardliners thought there should be serious consequences for her. Cooler heads accepted that heavy discipline (such as suspending her from caucus) would be counterproductive. It would further inflame the Palestinian issue, already hellishly difficult for Labor. And it would be a bad look to slap down a young conflicted Muslim woman.

Albanese resorted to a light-touch reproof, telling Payman not to attend next week’s caucus. But his action angered some, who said it was the prerogative of caucus, rather than the prime minister, to deal with an erring member. More to the point, Payman remains a time bomb, with Labor waiting for the next occasion the Greens seek to snare her.

Beyond her particular case, Payman’s action does raise an important question. Is Labor’s solidarity-at-all-costs rule still fit for purpose? The Liberals allow their MPs to cross the floor, and we are in an era when the public has come to like “community candidates” who are trading on their individuality.

In his 2013 book, Hearts and Minds, Chris Bowen, now energy minister, strongly argued more independence should be given to Labor parliamentarians.

Bowen wrote that the level of voting discipline imposed in Australian parties “would be unacceptable in most comparable countries” and recommended for Labor a British-type arrangement allowing MPs to cross the floor on some issues.

Labor had “dedicated and passionate MPs driven to make a difference. The public should see more of these people in action,” Bowen wrote.

Many Labor MPs would believe he had a point. But it is a point Labor has no appetite to address any time soon.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra. Republished from The Conversation.

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Michelle Grattan

Michelle Grattan

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