Australia's former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has resigned as Foreign Minister and will challenge currrent PM Julia Gillard on Monday for leadership of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). The vote provides an opportunity for Rudd to exact revenge on his former deputy and the "faceless" party faction leaders who supported her June 2010 takeover.
The instability in Canberra is of interest to WikiLeaks supporters for several reasons:
1. If Julian Assange can somehow avoid extradition to Sweden or the USA, he may seek a return home to his native Australia, where polls show up to 92% of the country support him. It is important that Assange's safety and ability to continue working with WikiLeaks are guaranteed.
2. Following the release of CableGate, PM Julia Gillard famously declared WikiLeaks "illegal" and demanded investigations from the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Australia's spy agency ASIO. Both organisations found that there was no breach of Australian or international laws, and yet Gillard (who trained as a lawyer) still has not withdrawn her prejudicial comments. Gillard insists that the publication of US cables was "based on an illegal act", presumably the disclosure of secret US government information by WikiLeaks' anonymous source (never mind the legal obligation to expose gross wrongdoings). Gillard's government has also provided minimal support to Assange during his UK court proceedings, and she appears to have banned ALP party members from publicly discussing WikiLeaks or Assange. ALP MPs and Senators have said next to nothing about Assange and WikiLeaks since December 2010, when a few (including Rudd) spoke out against her ill-judged pre-emptory verdict.
3. As Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd has failed to publicly speak up for Julian Assange, who claims the Australian government has provided him only minimal consular assistance. Nevertheless, Rudd laughed off WikiLeaks revelations from US Canberra Embassy cables, which showed that (a) US officials considered him a "control freak", and (b) several ALP colleagues and Union party-backers were "protected" suppliers of information to the US Embassy in Canberra. As PM, the Mandarin-speaking Rudd also displayed a willingness to defy Washington's agenda, such as when his government abstained from a UN vote condemning Israel rather than voting with the USA. So there is a good chance a second Rudd government would be less hostile to WikiLeaks and Assange than Gillard's government has been.
4. Julia Gillard leads a minority government and the Australian Greens party currently holds the balance of power, along with a few independents. The Greens are the only Australian party who have spoken out consistently in favour of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Greens Senator Scott Ludlum has been particularly supportive, flying at his own expense to London for the latest Supreme Court hearing and then visiting Sweden to request guarantees for Assange's safe handling. With leaders from both major parties being rejected by voters, there is an opportunity for the Greens to increase their vote share and hold an even more influential position in the next government.
Early polling suggests that Gillard is likely to survive Monday's vote, but even such a victory may be short-lived. Gillard remains deeply unpopular with the electorate and polls predict she will not win the next federal election.
If he loses the leadership ballot, Rudd has promised not to challenge Gillard again. But Rudd remains the ALP's most popular MP. If Gillard cannot improve her popularity ratings quickly, Rudd could yet be called upon to resume the top job.
Meanwhile, Opposition leader Tony Abbott is only marginally less unpopular than Gillard. Abbott is a long-time supporter of former PM John Howard, whose right-wing Liberal Coalition government was routed when Rudd won power in 2007. Coalition MPs and Senators have also failed to speak up publicly for Julian Assange, although several did join Rudd in condemning Gillard's "illegal" comments. Maverick MP Malcolm Turnbull, who was toppled by Abbott as Liberal leader in 2009, has also stated that Assange is not a criminal.
Gillard today survived the leadership spill with a convincing 71 to 31 victory. She claims that the ALP's internal problems have now been resolved, but media analysts suggest that the unedifying public battle has done her no favours. 18 months out from the next federal election, Bernard Keane in Crikey suggests that the real winners are other ALP leadership contenders.
While WikiLeaks and Assange did not register as public issues in the leadership battle, supporters were encouraged to see the issue of "faceless" backroom factions given media prominence. This culminated with the shock resignation of faction leader Mark Arbib, who was exposed by WikiLeaks as a "protected" information source in regular contact with the US Embassy in Canberra.