CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Prime Minister Gillard's mishandling of WikiLeaks
, December 25, 2010
As the political year draws to a close there remains a great deal of confusion about the direction of the Gillard Government and no small doubts about its hopes of longevity.
And the doubters appear to be just as numerous in the Labor ranks, including the very people who installed Julia Gillard as leader.
Only months out from the narrowest of election wins, Ms Gillard has failed to seize the authority which comes from being Prime Minister, and is being stretched in all directions as she is compelled to deal with competing political forces and the wafer-thin majority in the House of Representatives.
Ms Gillard is even facing the menace of her old foe, Kevin Rudd, who is clearly enjoying his new but familiar role as Foreign Minister. The former PM who brought Labor to power in 2007 but who was never given the chance to seek a second term, has managed an extraordinary personal revival, and is now taking every advantage of the WikiLeaks controversy to insert himself back onto the national stage.
There is little prospect of Mr Rudd becoming leader again in the medium term, but he is leaving no stone unturned in courting younger members of the Labor Caucus and cementing relations with MPs from the "class of 2007" who remain loyal to him.
Adding to these pressures, Prime Minister Gillard is now grappling with an unforeseen problem child - an Australian national whose sudden notoriety has catapulted him into the most recognised figure on the international stage and a candidate for Time
magazine's Person of the Year.
The Julian Assange affair has thrown up exquisite dilemmas for the Gillard Government as it tries to deal with the myriad issues of freedom of the press and free flow of information in the Internet era, the rights of Australian citizens detained overseas or wanted by US authorities, and the ongoing fallout caused by the thousands of diplomatic cables put up on Assange's WikiLeaks website, some of which have fingered key figures in the Australian Labor Party.
Mr Rudd himself has cleverly carved out a more nuanced position on Assange than Ms Gillard, playing down the significance of the leaks and distancing himself from Ms Gillard's knee-jerk reaction in condemning Assange as a criminal.
The rights and wrongs of the Assange case will be debated for a long time, and there are valid questions over whether the release of sensitive diplomatic cables was in the public good.
Mr Rudd argues that the fault lies with the US Government, which has failed to keep its diplomatic network secure, rather than with WikiLeaks itself.
The majority of the cables appear to consist of some oddly candid diplomatic chatter, some damaging home truths, and a few genuine bombshells such as Hillary Clinton's alleged order for US diplomats to engage in espionage in the United Nations. Most of the material would be of little surprise to government insiders around the world.
The usual suspects on the political Left have jumped to Assange's defence, including Australian expatriate mythmaker John Pilger and celebrity lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC.
Assange describes himself as a journalist and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks. In fact, he is a computer programmer by training, something of a perennial student. As a young man he was found guilty of hacking websites in Australia.
Judging by his articles and interviews, he appears to be more of an Internet anarchist than a journalist in the traditional sense.
Ms Gillard's judgment over Assange is being questioned on several counts.
First, she appeared to jump the gun early: she declared Assange guilty, even before he was arrested, and threatened to cancel his passport.
"The foundation stone of this WikiLeaks issue is an illegal act," Ms Gillard declared, though it is still unclear whether Mr Assange has broken any Australian laws.
Ms Gillard was also quick to condemn WikiLeaks, but has not said a word against the mainstream Australian press, which has keenly published the same diplomatic material across prominent pages of newspapers.
Ms Gillard's political allies are also questioning whether it was a sensible tactic to be turning Mr Assange into a new David Hicks-type figure, driving more left-wing Labor voters into the arms of Senator Bob Brown's Greens.
Even the Opposition is happy to make Ms Gillard's life difficult.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has chosen to be extremely circumspect in his commentary, while shadow Attorney-General Senator George Brandis has defended Assange's rights as an Australian citizen.
Malcolm Turnbull, who defended disaffected former British intelligence officer Peter Wright in the 1986 Spycatcher
case, is chafing at the bit to condemn the Government's handling of the issue.
Whatever Assange's fate, the affair is likely to become a seminal event in the history of the Internet.
Proponents have long argued for untrammelled freedom and no restrictions on content, but governments are now realising the potential downside to an entirely uncensored form of media. Multinational companies and the banking industry have been warned by WikiLeaks that "they will be next" - adding to pressure to shut the website down.
Interestingly, amid all the hullabaloo over the Assange affair and the torrent of media discussions, the Chinese Government has stood out in saying nothing at all.
Perhaps Ms Gillard should have taken a leaf out their book and thought through the complex issues before coming down so heavily against Assange.