2011-03-17 WikiLeaks Forum at Sydney Town Hall 16 March 2011

Wednesday's forum on the tribulations surrounding WikiLeaks was timely and a much-needed shot in the arm for political discourse in Australia.

Framed through the lens of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks' David and Goliath struggle against the machine, the dominant theme of the night was the questioning of Australia's political identity and sovereignty in its unbalanced relationship with the United States, and how this imbalance has manifested itself in the lack of political and legal support provided to its citizens. Hence, some parallels between Julian Assange and previous Gitmo detainees David Hicks (present in the audience) and Mamdouh Habib were repeatedly made. On some levels, this may be seen as incongruous - Hicks and Habib were terror suspects, whereas Assange, despite hostile rhetoric, has not been accused of terrorism by a prosecuting authority - but the import of drawing these parallels is the same.

Open to the public, the seats inside Sydney's stately Town Hall filled up quickly, no doubt due to the caliber of the panelists rather than the rain pouring outside. The night's proceedings were emceed by Mark Kostakidis, veteran of Australian public broadcaster SBS. The speakers were the award-winning journalist John Pilger, member for Australian Federal Parliament and famous Iraq war whistleblower Andrew Wilkie, and tireless human-rights campaigner Julian Burnside QC.

Indeed, there were no "hawks" on the panel to provide opposition to the overall theme of libertarianism - not that the audience present minded, for this forum was a chance to escape the endless diatribes of said hawks, who are already in the privileged position of being able to pollute the airwaves, print and the web, stifling such fora under hackneyed pretexts of "national security" (to name but one).

Despite persistent claims that prominent WikiLeaks supporters are essentially leftist idealists, the forum reiterated that such simplistic assertions are logically unsound, as the problems highlighted by the WikiLeaks controversy, and elucidated upon so properly by the panelists, show that all strata of society are deeply implicated and affected by the omission of truth and its consequences.

Kostakidis began by opening with a statement from Amnesty International. The statement, like that of the other panelists tonight, did not mince words. Amnesty advise they give full support to WikiLeaks as a journalistic entity and are appalled by the conditions of Bradley Manning's incarceration. Kostakidis gave an impassioned opening of her own, asserting WikiLeaks's previous triumphs in reportage; that WikiLeaks has effectively changed the balance of power between people and their "governors" - and the course of history itself - citing the Tunisian revolution as an example.

Kostakidis then asked the audience whether they believe WikiLeaks has put anyone in danger with their publications. The collective answer was a boisterous "NO!" which resounded throughout the hall.

John Pilger lead his address by holding up a piece of paper to the audience, telling us it was a classified document from the UK Ministry of Defence, leaked to WikiLeaks, outlining the greatest threats to Western governments. Pilger revealed that, among the expected bête noires of terrorism, including even "the Russians" (which drew laughs from the crowd), the group actually topping this list is journalists. More laughter ensued. This assessment, leaked from officialdom itself, is irony at its apotheosis: absurd yet honest and realistic all at once. As a matter of fact, anyone in power should be afraid of journalists. What is the point otherwise? As Pilger noted, "The real threat is the right to call your government to account."

An eloquent orator, Pilger covered a lot of ground in little time, connecting the roots of deceit in the mainstream media that are fed by false PR (Edward Bernays' propaganda) to infamous manifestations of this deceit - such as the Australian PM Robert Menzies' assurances to the Australian public in the 1960s that Saigon had begged for Australian military intervention, which was a lie. "Imagine if we had WikiLeaks then?" Pilger mused. The real problem, Pilger stated, is that "governments hate the democracy of knowledge" that WikiLeaks represents.

Describing Assange's legal troubles in Sweden as "Kafka-esque," Pilger declared the risk of his ending up in Gitmo is a very real one. Pilger leveled a special charge against Attorney General Robert McClelland: "He knows full well that the circumstances of JA's problems in Sweden STINK." Now on a roll, Pilger shone a torch on Sweden's complicity with the US, calling the Swedish PM a "war-mongering mate" of George W. Bush (Karl Rove also got a mention), and on illegal arrangements for rendition cases between Sweden and the US.

Yet the mainstream press in Australia has made scant mention of this, laments Pilger, choosing instead to focus on Gillard's fawning speech to the US Congress. The US has crushed fifty governments since the Second World War, and Australia continues to show deference to them regardless of who is prime minister, he thundered.

Andrew Wilkie spoke of the immense support from across the political spectrum he received when he publicly criticized Julia Gillard's position on WikiLeaks last year. While he still has reservations about the totality with which WL publishes information, the overriding public concern is "over the abuse of the rule of law and the contempt for the presumption of innocence."

Wilkie also equated political antagonism for WikiLeaks with the wider drift towards internet censorship in Australia, stating that the proposed internet filter "is inconsistent with the nature of the internet" and the persecution of Julian Assange is an extension of this trajectory.

As befits his personal history, Wilkie clearly has the civic duty of whistleblowing close to his heart as a political and juridical issue.

In comparison to the US, he argued, whistleblowing is "still a dirty word in Australia." Culturally, there is no heroism in being a truth-teller in a country that otherwise so convincingly conveys an egalitarian spirit. Wilkie pointed out that this culture is reflected in Australian law: federal public servants still face the threat of up to two years in prison for daring to speak out, and journalists can expect up to seven years for publishing that information.

Wilkie expressed dismay that shield laws to protect journalists and their sources were recently passed in Australia only because it was in the Gillard government's "political self-interest to do so" - referring to the now populous parliamentary crossbench that provides a counterpoint to the two major parties.

The final panelist to speak was Julian Burnside, esteemed Australian barrister and human-rights advocate. Appropriately, Burnside's homily transported this writer to an imagined courtroom during a history-changing case of yore. On trial tonight was not Julian Assange but rather his governors. Burnside started off simply by asserting that Wikileaks has broken no laws in Australia, nor has it done so in the United States, despite well-publicized histrionics by those aforementioned hawks.

Then the courtroom seduction began. Burnside, his barrister's wig firmly on (in the metaphorical sense), tells the crowd that our current systems of law are based on the Hobbesian and Lockean schools of thought. "People surrender some of their individual autonomy in exchange for protection from the state." Clearly, this contract has been perverted. Julia Gillard's actions serve as a "converse of treason," for in her abandonment of Assange as a citizen, she has failed to uphold her part of the social contract as a governor.

Much like Pilger, Burnside is clearly up to speed with the machinations behind Assange's case in Sweden. Citing recent articles by feminist author and activist Naomi Wolf on the case, Burnside remarked that never before has a man accused, not convicted, of rape been imprisoned without bail before questioning.

He told the audience of the farce played out by Swedish authorities at the behest of the US - with Sweden deciding to apply for extradition only when the US was sufficiently embarrassed by Cablegate. "Anyone who thinks this extradition is for a sex crime has been living in sad isolation," he declared. More peals of wry laughter erupted from the crowd.

The main arc of Burnside's speech was that the public bears the greatest responsibility for improving this situation, and only when we overcome our passivity in the face of such injustices will we see results. Christine Assange had called Burnside that day to pass along a message: Contact your local member of Parliament and demand answers about what is being done to protect Assange as an Australian citizen.

Burnside assured the crowd that he knows what it's like to be weary in the face of such oppression. As my time was running short, I wasn't able to stick around too long after the floor opened to the audience. But as I walked out of the hall, Burnside's words echoed in my ears: "Never give up."


Video here

Some photos here

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer