There’s nothing new about asylum seekers dominating Australian media those attempting to reach Australian shores by boat regularly make headlines.
But on Monday it was an asylum seeker who already has an Australian passport who led the news: Julian Assange.
Giving an interview to the pressure-group GetUp!, from his bolt-hole in Ecuador’s London embassy – in which he’s stuck – Assange tried to pull at the heart-strings.
“I can’t go and visit my family. I can’t do things that are important to many people. I can’t view the skyline. I can’t visit my homeland.”
If that was the emotion, the meat was a threat to sue Australia’s Prime Minister. Assange has consistently complained about the way, he feels, his country has dis-owned him.
He says he has received minimal consular support in his battles with British – and Swedish – authorities. On the contrary, he says, his own country’s leaders have effectively thrown him to the dogs.
In his interview with GetUp! Assange made a specific threat: he had hired, he said, Sydney lawyers to look into whether he has been defamed by Australian Prime Minister. In a story that has already had more twists and turns than most paperback thrillers – and has just become the subject of an Australian tele-movie – here was the latest: Julian Assange might sue Julia Gillard.
The alleged defamation concerns an interview she gave in 2010. In it she said that not only were Wikileaks leaks ‘grossly irresponsible’ but also – crucially – ‘illegal’. That comment, Assange claims, has damaged WIkileaks because – citing it – commercial organisations have withdrawn their support.
Assange says Mastercard, for example, used Gillard’s comments as a reason to refuse to process donations to Wikileaks. Assange says as neither he nor his organisation has ever been charged, let alone convicted of anything to do with Wikileaks, the Australian Prime Minister labelling its activities illegal is both prejudicial and defamatory.
Could this go anywhere? One leading Australian defamation law thinks it’s little more than a stunt.
“For the life of me, I cannot imagine that there is a cause of action that WikiLeaks could ever bring” Stuart Littlemore QC says.
It may seem trivial, but one hurdle would be the length of time Assange has waited. Defamation claims in Australia generally need to be made within 12 months of the comments.
And then there’s how any case would work in practice: could Assange prove no Wikileakers had ever acted illegally? Given his current indisposition in London, how would he participate in a court case in Australia? Would he need to?
The real aim may not be to sue a world leader, but instead to remind her and others that his predicament continues. GetUp!, an organisation that, among other campaigns, is calling for Assange to receive more support, is using its interview to call for donations.
They want Australia’s government to ask the US to guarantee they won’t call for Assange’s extradition from Sweden to America if he agrees to travel to the former to face sexual assault charges.
Australia’s government says it never offer guarantees based on hypothetical scenarios.
There’s also this: if America did ever attempt to extradite Assange, presumably they’d do that because they wanted to charge him with something illegal. And that could make his case against Gillard – based on proving he’s never acted illegally – that much harder to prove.