When a party which espouses human rights and social justice appears to be in cahoots with gun nuts and neo-fascists, that’s not a good look. When it loses a star candidate two weeks before an election, that’s careless. And when the same party, supposedly synonymous with democracy and transparency, is accused by its own members of secretive decision-making, that could spell electoral oblivion.
The party in question is the WikiLeaks Party, established in March by Julian Assange, the founder of the whistle-blowing WikiLeaks website. Despite his indefinite sojourn at Ecuador’s embassy in London, Mr Assange hopes to win a seat in the Australian Senate. “When you turn a bright light on, the cockroaches scuttle away, and that’s what we need to do to Canberra,” he told Australia’s Nine Network recently.
Last week, a bright light was shone on the party itself, and it illuminated, at worst, something rather unsavoury, at best, rank incompetence. Whichever, it prompted the departure of Mr Assange’s articulate and glamorous running mate, Leslie Cannold, along with four members of the governing national council. And there may be more desertions before the 7 September election.
The catalyst was the revelation last week that in New South Wales, one of three states where WikiLeaks is fielding Senate candidates, the party (mistakenly, it says) has ordained that under Australia’s preferential voting system its votes should be distributed – in the event that its own people are not elected – to the right-wing Shooters and Fishers Party (motto “Protect your freedoms and the future of outdoor sports”) and the white supremacist Australia First Party.
Not surprisingly, that upset many of the activists, intellectuals and progressives who have gravitated to the party, inspired by the WikiLeaks ideals and the idea of a new kind of politics. The Shooters are not exactly their cup of tea, while Australia First is led by Jim Saleam, who founded a neo-Nazi party in the 1970s and was jailed for organising a shotgun attack in 1989 on an Australian representative of the ANC.
Voters can rank Senate candidates themselves, or follow "how to vote" cards handed out by party workers at polling booths. But if they vote for a party rather than an individual, their votes will be distributed according to preferences lodged by the parties, sometimes as the result of deals.
WikiLeaks also upset the Australian Greens, who have been among Mr Assange’s most vocal supporters. In Western Australia, the party “preferenced” – deliberately – the conservative Nationals ahead of the Greens, even though Scott Ludlam, the Greens senator seeking re-election in that state, travelled to Europe at his own expense in 2011 to discuss Mr Assange’s legal problems with Sweden.
That led to Mr Assange’s mother, Christine, tweeting last week that if she lived in Western Australia, “I’d vote for Senator Scott Ludllum [sic]… fearless, effective defender of #FreePress #WikiLeaks & my son Julian #Assange”. In other words, she wouldn’t vote for her son’s WikiLeaks Party. As for Mr Ludlam, he called the decision “extraordinarily disappointing”.
At the same time, the row has exposed ideological and tactical rifts within a party that claims to appeal to both left and right, with its emphasis on both freedom and justice. Daniel Mathews, who quit the 11-member national council last week, wrote on his blog of a split between “an insider group” which was prepared to strike deals to win power, and those members more concerned about upholding principles.
Mr Mathews, a friend of Mr Assange’s since their university days and a co-founder in 2006 of the WikiLeaks website, also criticised him for attending only one of 13 council meetings in recent months.
A high-profile writer and academic, Ms Cannold had been in line to occupy Mr Assange’s Victorian Senate seat on his behalf, were he to be elected. But the party, she complained, had failed to live up to its own principles of democracy, transparency and accountability. Decisions were taken by an “inner circle” headed by Mr Assange, thus sidelining the council and subverting the party’s democratic processes, she claimed.
Opinion polls suggest that up to a quarter of Australians would consider voting for the WikiLeaks Party, although analysts expect it to win no more than 3 or 4 per cent of the primary vote. The preference votes of other parties could therefore be crucial.
WikiLeaks officials have blamed the Shooters/Australia First fiasco on “administrative errors”, for which Mr Assange has claimed responsibility, saying he was distracted by his efforts to help the US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, and by the Bradley Manning trial.
However, Ms Cannold, for one, is not entirely convinced. “There were some indications that that was possibly not the case,” she told ABC radio.
It is hard, of course, to run a party from 10,000 miles away and nine hours behind. Speaking from the small room in the Knightsbridge embassy where he lives, sleeps and continues to run his website, while receiving a stream of visitors, Mr Assange pronounced himself guilty of “over-delegating” – a notion which would probably mystify some of his critics, who consider him the ultimate control freak.
The WikiLeaks founder – who sought asylum in the embassy in June last year, to avoid extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault charges – has been campaigning via Skype. He wants his party to be “an independent scrutineer of government activity”, he says, and for its politicians, if elected, to act as “investigative journalists”, uncovering dishonesty and pressing for an end to government and corporate secrecy. He has also raised the possibility of WikiLeaks parties being set up in the US, India and Britain.
Some detect self-interest in his tilt for political power. Mr Assange has said he expects a Senate seat to insulate him from prosecution by US authorities, with the latter unlikely to risk a diplomatic row by pursuing a member of the Australian parliament. (At home, though, he could face a constitutional challenge if elected, due to the unusual circumstances.)
Kellie Tranter, a human rights lawyer and a WikiLeaks candidate in New South Wales, said she was satisfied the preferencing of the Shooters and Australia First was a genuine mistake.
“To suggest that the episode reflects an implosion [of the party], or a lack of integrity, or a warning not to cast your vote this way, is in my personal view an extreme over-reaction,” she said. “I still have absolute confidence in the party and what we represent.”
A senior party source suggested that some of those who had quit “thought it was a green-left party, and it’s not … It’s neither left nor right, and it has a strong libertarian streak.” He added: “The party’s an interesting mix of idealists and careerists, and when things got a bit rough, it cracked. There’s a point where pragmatism comes into play, and that’s what’s happened here.”