September 17, 2013 · 3 Comments
Above: NYTX cropped screenshot of a WikiLeaks Party flyer (full PDF).
By Daniel Mathews:
The recent implosion of the WikiLeaks Party was a sad affair.
A fledgling political party in the Australian elections, potentially poised to pick up a substantial number of disaffected votes, Beppe Grillo style, potentially poised to sweep dissident icon Julian Assange into the Australian senate on the back of a global movement for transparency and justice, instead crashed and burned as one of its leading candidates, Leslie Cannold, and over a third of its National Council resigned. It ended up receiving less than 1% of the national vote.
I know something of it. In addition to being a founding member of WikiLeaks back in 2006, I was one of those National Council members who resigned.
We on the National Council were in a very difficult situation. On the one hand, toxic political acts and tawdry corruption were confronting us, and we had exhausted all options against it. The party had given preferences to fascists and others, and spurned the principal supporters of WikiLeaks in the Australian parliament, the Greens — even though we on the National Council had essentially made binding decisions to the contrary. (See my account for details.) And when we succeeded in obtaining the party’s announcement of an independent review into what happened, that decision too was subverted. To stay on was to acquiesce in a sham, and to represent to the Australian people that the party was something it was not. To leave was to send a shock wave through the activist movement that has grown around the work of WikiLeaks, and to provide ammunition to the enemies of transparency everywhere. It was not a pleasant situation, but it was not one of our own choosing — it was a result of the very conscious actions of others.
The party had been in a potentially fraught position from the start — any troubles in which it might find itself could well reverberate in dangerous directions. But the perilous situation of the figurehead does not absolve a party seeking electoral approval from the responsibility to observe minimal standards of internal decency and democracy. Even when the party’s lead candidate is an international dissident icon, there are still lines which can be crossed, at which point continued association is no longer possible. More generally, when the figurehead is a celebrity, one must remain aware of potential tendencies towards consolidation of power and cults of personality, and away from participatory democracy. It was never going to be an easy ride, but it was surprising, and sad, how quickly the wheels fell off.
One unfortunate foreseeable consequence of the party implosion was how the affair would play into the hands of those media outlets, especially in the US, who demonize WikiLeaks — precisely because of WikiLeaks’ courageous work telling the people the things they need to know, doing the job that the mainstream media will not do. Their efforts to poison public opinion against WikiLeaks place Julian Assange in ongoing jeopardy.
For better or worse, the implosion garnered some, but not much, mainstream press attention in Australia. As elsewhere, minor parties in Australian elections receive infinitesimal coverage, although Assange’s celebrity somewhat reversed that situation for the WikiLeaks Party. Other parties would have killed to obtain the coverage the party got — but the advantage, as it turns out, was squandered. A couple of days after the implosion there was little coverage to be seen in Australia, and even less elsewhere.
Had there been no implosion and an unremarkable result at the election, there would have been precious little attention from the US; perhaps the establishment would pause to sneer at the dissident, as it regularly does. But an implosion having occurred, one could hardly doubt attacks would appear.
And indeed, on Saturday, the New York Times carried a provocatively titled piece by Julia Baird — “Assange as Tyrant?”.
The headline is hyperbolic, but grounded in fact — the WikiLeaks Party was not (and still is not) governed by Assange but by a National Council, and Julian did in fact attempt to grant himself veto rights and reduce the National Council to a rubber stamp (PDF) when the council leaned in a direction he didn’t like.
I think we should, however, query the unchecked elision of internal party politics with tyranny. Tyranny over a political party is nothing like the kind of violent, repressive political tyranny over a State which is the usual meaning of the word. Had Assange wanted to set up his own political party with total control over it, he would have been free to — one might disagree with the ethics and politics of doing so, and I would, but such a choice would be perfectly legal and not particularly unusual. Corporations, after all, are private tyrannies in a somewhat similar sense. The headline smeared these two types of tyranny together.
In the US mainstream press, one does not expect any opportunity to be missed to attack someone as anathema to the political-military-media establishment as Assange. Thankfully, however, Julia Baird’s article refrains from casting the common aspersions or insinuations that Assange is reckless or endangering lives — just as well, since there is no evidence of any lives lost as a result of WikiLeaks’ courageous publishing. Instead, her criticisms are limited to the democratic process and the Australian election — legitimate criticisms, in my view. As such, it is a remarkably fair article. (She apparently interviewed several people, but I was not one of them.)
It is one thing to work as a publisher and courageously publish material the world needs to know. That carries all sorts of dangers and awesome responsibilities. But the responsibilities of running for public office are of a different order, and they are also weighty. They are magnified when one sets up a political party which is to be an exemplar of transparency, accountability and justice. Baird’s article focuses on this latter set of responsibilities, and rightly so — they are the relevant considerations here.
There are several inaccuracies in Baird’s article, but they are mostly immaterial. For instance, the mechanisms of preference flows in Australian elections are described inaccurately (preferences are only distributed when a party is eliminated from the contest). Reference to “WikiLeaks members” should be to “WikiLeaks Party National Council members”. My surname is misspelt. These are unimportant.
One inaccuracy actually works in Assange’s favour. Baird states that Assange “appointed himself president, for example, although there was no mention of this role in the WikiLeaks constitution”. It is true that he referred to himself as President (PDF). But the party constitution does mention a President — it’s an alternative title for the Chairperson of the National Council. There is a President, but it is not Julian. It’s one thing to invent a title for yourself out of thin air; it’s quite another to usurp an existing title held by someone else.
After the preference fiasco, and substantial efforts within the National Council, the Party announced, on August 21, an “immediate independent review” to “ascertain why National Council directives were not achieved”. Starting immediately, it should have been possible to obtain answers within a few days — certainly by the end of the month. However, no review has yet appeared, nor have any details of it been announced.
There are good reasons to believe a proper review is unlikely ever to appear. According to David Haidon, a volunteer coordinator who quit the party along with myself and others, John Shipton — Julian’s father and confidant, a central figure of the party, and member of the National Council — asserted that he would take control of the review and bypass the National Council “because they are a bunch of raving fucking lunatics” (PDF). Shipton then threatened legal action against another National Councillor who opposed him doing so.
Such behavior at the center of a democratic political party is enough to make anyone walk away. It made David, myself and several others do so. It deserves attention and attracts legitimate criticism — even in the pages of the New York Times, far away from Australian domestic politics.
I doubt the New York Times as an institution would have passed up an opportunity to sink the boot into Julian. But Baird has done a good job, so far as possible in the circumstances — tawdry as they are — of not playing into the demonization of Assange that endangers his life and limb. For all his failings in electoral politics, the work of WikiLeaks stands for itself, and has inspired millions around the world that there is still hope, and that change is possible. Whatever our judgment on the WikiLeaks Party, WikiLeaks, or Julian Assange, we must never lose sight of that hope, and continue working for a better world.
Daniel Mathews is a mathematician, currently a lecturer in the school of mathematical sciences at Monash University. He was a founding member of WikiLeaks.