03 April 2012

The politics of the ether

Julian Assange said he would run for the Senate, and there was a bit of publicity about that with a lot of very silly extrapolation as to what such a candidacy might mean in terms of future elections. I'm more interested in what constituency he'd appeal to, and how such a flighty man might deal with the drudgery of parliamentary committee work and the bullshit of the politico-media complex.

From this bit of fanboy work, we can see that Assange is pitching directly to the broken heart of Australian politics: moderate liberals, people who have been either chased out from the Liberal Party or who remain as hollowed-out husks, or else those who found themselves trapped beneath the wreckage of the Democrats.
Julian Assange says he wants to bring liberty back to the centre of Australian politics, using his Senate candidacy to defend free speech and the "right of citizens … to live their lives free from state interference".

The WikiLeaks founder also plans to be a "fierce defender of free media" if elected to the Senate, using parliamentary privilege to break court suppression orders and other "excessive constraints" on free access to information ... Mr Assange said he "could be described as a libertarian" and nominated Australian Democrats founder Don Chipp and former prime minister Malcolm Fraser as political figures he admired.
Libertarians and Malcolm Fraser. There's a problem with defining your constituency right there: it certainly poses a challenge of conciliation. The silence from your IPA and CIS in support of Assange has been deafening, but you'd expect that from those who by definition are resistant to organisation let alone mobilisation.

Assange himself has been critical of the Federal government for not supporting him in his travails with at least three other countries' legal systems, so maybe he takes a selective approach to "state interference".
While not charged with any offence in Sweden, [Assange] fears extradition will open the way for his extradition to the United States on possible espionage or conspiracy charges in retaliation for WikiLeaks' publication of thousands of classified military and diplomatic reports.
Australia will co-operate with any US extradition request every bit as much as Sweden, or the UK for that matter; if not more so.
Mr Assange was sharply critical of both the federal government and opposition, saying there is "very little difference between Liberal and Labor - especially once they get into government. Labor suffers more from cronyism, while the Liberals care more for big business."
Big business thinks about as much of Abbott and Hockey as they do of Gillard and Swan. That said, Assange has detected that Australian politics is in a period of deep disillusionment with the major parties (yes, both of them; Liberals relying on the sky-high polling for their side really are kidding themselves).

This parallels the period in the aftermath of the Whitlam Dismissal from which the Democrats sprang. The Democrats maintained a presence in the Senate and in the upper houses of three states for a generation, until it became clear that they were not the answer to the essential question that they put to the Australian political system. After the GST deal in 1999 the had years to establish an alternative vision for their party, and having failed to do so were pried from the political system as soon as electoral cycles permitted.
He is considering "all possibilities" for his Senate bid, including running as an independent, seeking an alliance with another party, or launching a new party devoted to open government. While support for WikiLeaks is strongest among Greens voters, Mr Assange noted recent polling had shown 53 per cent approval across the spectrum.
Assange has no political organisation on the ground here. The way to build a political organisation is not to threaten to build one, or to boast about your potential to build one, but to actually build one. A year from now the election contest will be more intense than it is now, which is why Assange should be much more advanced than he is in building his support base. I don't doubt that the net "hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him", but there should be more substantial evidence of it by now than there is. The idea that he might be ambivalent about joining the Greens, joining some other existing organisation or building his own from scratch is crazy at this late stage.

The Greens would be mad to take him. They have two core constituencies: people who have devoted their lives to environmental campaigns (e.g. Bob Brown, Christine Milne) or who have risen through the ranks of inner-city community organisations (e.g. almost any other Green politician currently serving), and Assange is neither of these. He offers them little that they lack already: the Greens have all the profile they need, thanks anyway. At the next election the Greens are almost guaranteed to win a seat in Victoria, NSW and Queensland, and may well beat the Liberals in the ACT; the candidates to be elected to those seats have almost certainly been active Greens for years and have shored up considerable support already. For Assange to be starting now without so much as a list of numbers or e-mail addresses of Greens members, and expecting to win their votes for zero quid-pro-quo, is simply ignorant of political realities.

The failure to court existing organisations, however loosely organised, that might support him is similar to Malcolm Turnbull's disdain for republican movements that preceded his own. Assange seems to assume a support organisation will appear in Australia, and his background shows that he will split it when he comes to take charge of it. Contrast him with the slow and patient work that Nick Xenophon has put in building his base in South Australia - after the demise of the Democrats.
He emphasised his record as "a fierce defender of press freedom … even though I have known only too well smear by unethical media".
Assange has chosen to make his life an open book. Others who have been dragged into the spotlight and misrepresented, as referred to in the Finkelstein Inquiry, will struggle with Assange through sheer mutual incomprehension. The only organisation in this country with countervailing power to that of the media is the government; Assange has said that he will not use government power against the media. The media organisations themselves, and many libertarians in the community, will simply delegitimise any attempt to do so with the call of the turkey of irresponsible journalism: Goebbels, Goebbels, Goebbels. The media are only a force for good when their capacity for harm to those with limited ability to fight back is limited; when that capacity is unlimited, as it has been for a generation, those who trumpet the importance of a free press are treated with suspicion (and the idea that only an unregulated media stand between where we are now and tyranny is risible and patronising).
Mr Assange nominated Don Chipp as an inspirational figure with whom he shared "many basic ideas", including the importance of "keeping the bastards honest".
The Democrats got and kept considerable power in Australian houses of review through assiduous committee work, reviewing the minutiae of government as it is practiced from the loftiest ministerial statement to the lowliest clerical busywork, comparing documents that appeared to tell different stories about the same thing, and demanding accountability in ways that even the slipperiest politicians could not escape. Assange has demonstrated no ability in this area, no knowledge, no recognition that it even matters. Would he even turn up to sitting day after sitting day? As with building a support base, this capacity can be developed only through exercising it. The Greens recognise this and they live it.
He also singled out Malcolm Fraser for speaking up for civil liberties and humane treatment for asylum seekers.
Again, the lack of reciprocal support (from someone who knows a thing or two about how politics actually works) is telling.
On global issues, he argued that Australia must take into account the likelihood of "serious decline" of the US over the next 15 to 20 years - indeed "collapse of its superpower status". In this case he supports much greater regional engagement and an increased defence and intelligence budget "to reduce our reliance on the US".
He supports what?

It's a poor journalist who would not call Assange on the fundamental contradiction of calling for greater Australian defence and intelligence activity? Will his overarching commitment to freedom of information not undermine it? Which regional politician/diplomat/military official would say anything of substance to an Australian counterpart, if they suspected that it will be all over the internet within minutes? Is the US alliance not a cost-effective strategy toward these ends? Had Dorling been a journalist rather than a stenographer he (or his even more culpable editors) would have picked that and put the conundrum closer to the heart of this story.
He repeatedly emphasised the importance of protecting small business and individuals from the power of government and large corporations.
Small business, eh? One of the best things that government can do for small business is to pay their invoices on time. In his quest for the big issues of infoliberty, I just can't see Senator Assange getting bogged down with stuff like that. He'd be a nightmare to work for too, with Mirabella levels of staff turnover. His declaration o pecuniary interest would be interesting.

In late-night Senate horsetrading who could trust Assange to deliver? To give one example of a real issue with real impact on both Canberra insiders and the populace at large: pokies. Given that the government has kicked pokies reform into the next term of parliament, it is unclear where Senator Assange would stand: for the freedom of gambling venues to conduct their business as they will, or with weakened individuals who need government to develop a policy position and a structure so that they can deal with their addiction. This is an issue that has been all over the media for quite some time and no political aspirant has any excuse not be be across it. What would he trade for his vote?
On controversial social issues including same-sex marriage and euthanasia, he acknowledged "strong arguments on all sides".
Well, yes. That flash of pragmatism is going to turn off the committed support base Assange doesn't even have.
Former Australian Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja last week observed: "There will be many Australians who prefer to side with those who reveal, not conceal, so get ready for a fascinating campaign and watch the scrambling for [Assange's] preferences."
That scramble for preferences involves quid pro quo. Assange is happy to take the quid but less so in giving - or indeed being capable of delivering - the quo. The party hard-heads who "shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste" in conducting preference negotiations will understand this, and the 'scramble' might be less watchable than Stott Despoja might imagine.

There are considerable undercurrents of political support that are capable of propelling candidates into parliament, and which do so in other countries. In Australia, the major parties can and do keep these movements divided:
  • Christianists are cleft between right-wing Fred Nile/DLP, who preference the Coalition, and other compassion-based movements that preference the Greens or Labor.
  • People who support fewer restrictions on guns and access to national parks are split between the right-wing Shooters and the more even-handed Outdoor Recreation Party.
  • Libertarians are split between civil libertarians on the left, economic libertarians on the right. Occasionally there is outreach by the latter to the former, as in this article or the Sex Party, but it is too rare to be politically reliable and too weak to force significant and sustained change. Libertarians are skittish in dealing with government at all, and sustained high-quality engagement is essential to bringing policies into being and keeping them going.
  • The most significant and interesting example of this is occurring now with the Greens and rural anti-mining movements. People like Barnaby Joyce are frantically attempting to keep rural people within the Coalition fold who had been disenfranchised by mining rights, while the Greens are seeking to co-opt them. A movement that spans inner-city activists and conservative farmers may well be beyond the current generation of politicians - it is certainly beyond Assange - but it has the best potential to break the two-party system (at the very least, it will almost certainly deny office to Tony Abbott in the short term).
If Assange's last address in Australia was in Victoria, then that's the jurisdiction where he'll have to run:
  • The good news is that it is also the jurisdiction most receptive to the sort of small-l liberal message Assange appears to be crafting. The other two jurisdictions that have historically been receptive to liberalism are South Australia (Xenophon has that political market sewn up) and NSW (which no longer offers a constituency for it; conservatives in the ALP and Coalition have chewed liberals up and spat them out and voters have ratified those decisions).
  • The bad news is that he will have to win more votes there than in any other jurisdiction (other than NSW) to get elected. Brian Harradine built a long Senate career from Tasmania with the sort of vote that would have consigned him to the fringes in Victoria or some other larger jurisdiction.
  • Andrew Landeryou's claim that Assange would take a seat from the Greens is mistaken. Their constituency - inner-city activists and those concerned about environmental issues - would hold off any challenge from Assange. The threat he poses is to the last vestiges of the idea that the Liberal Party represents liberals. It is from that party that he would take votes (and even that assumes he'd run a committed and sensible campaign) because it has lost the ability even to talk respectfully to small-l liberals, let alone encourage them to remain within an abusive relationship and support that revolting oik from Sydney. The only Greens votes that would go to Assange would be from small-l liberals who rely upon the kindness of political strangers.
If Assange were elected as a pure independent, and if he were prevented from seeing out his term (either through failing to attend sitting days as required or through some sort of misadventure) it would be fascinating to see who would take in his place, and how the Victorian/other jurisdiction would come to that decision.

Pinning down Julian Assange in the Senate is a whimsical but impractical idea that in many important respects has already failed. Its appeal and its impossibility makes it the early-21st-century equivalent of subjecting Clancy of the Overflow to do clerical work. I can understand why journalists might toy with the idea but I wish they had given it the examination that a strong application for public office warrants. Buried beneath what is already a dead idea are live issues surrounding freedom of information in a digital age, and those ideas will have their day at the centre of public life; but substantial political forces compel their ideas into the public debate in a way that Assange hasn't and can't. That is why - to coin a phrase - "I doubt he'd suit the office".


  1. You don't think the shell of the Australian Democrats would try and pinch him as their star candidate?

    1. It'd work about as well as anything else they've tried in recent years.

  2. You have written this like an insider in defense of the system. I don't blame you for that as I value your insights in this and other articles. However there is a clear theme running through this article that you doubt Assange would fit in with the structures of the existing system.

    For me, that would be attaction enough to vote for him. I believe that the current political environment is in a state of wedged gridlock and Assange might just be the catalyst to blow it apart a bit. He is certainly clever enough to think past the existing constructs.

    I see shades of it often with Bob Brown, when he answers the gotcha jounalists with "well that's your way of looking at things - but we don't play that game". Unfortunately he is a bit man alone on this though - with the possible exception of Sarah Hanson-Young. And the Greens are also a bit too embedded in the existing system?

    While I admire Xenophon, he seems to get too caught up in the wheeling and dealing of the game in earch of an outcome?

    So my vote would go to Assange if he were ever to run. Our system would benefit from a bit of a shake.

    1. I understand your frustration, but the problem with your position is in that very strange and funny phrase of yours "blow it apart a bit". Either you blow something apart or you affect it a bit, which is it?

      The system you describe is robust enough to contain and isolate the sort of catalyst you yearn for until they become ineffective and their base dies - this is assuming Assange is actually as serious about applying himself to politics to a extent that is nowhere evident in any aspect of his life.

      Nobody goes into politics in order to maintain the status quo. Every politician alive fancies they are giving things "a bit of a shake" (but not too much though). He might be clever in some respects but he isn't all-knowing, as his current predicament proves, and he is no more or less clever than many who vowed to change the way the nation works.

  3. Yes, he is unlikely to start any new movement, and nobody with sensitive information will tell him anything at all, so he might find himself excluded from many of the private pollie cliques, and even committees. But there are advantages from having the odd maverick like Wilkie and Xenophon, to tell us what's going on and more importantly, what might go on if they pulled their collective fingers out. Of course, two many such people and nothing will get done. Maybe Assange should wait until Xenophon retires.