29 February 2012
Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (14:19): My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Evans. I refer to reports in the Fairfax press this morning that Stratfor, a Texas based private intelligence firm, has known for more than a year of the existence of a sealed indictment from a secret grand jury against Australian citizen and journalist Julian Assange. Did our ally the United States give the Prime Minister the courtesy of a disclosure and, if so, when? Or did she read it in the papers along with the rest of us? Minister, for how long has the Prime Minister known of the existence of this sealed indictment?
Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:19): I thank the senator for his question. I obviously cannot comment on unsubstantiated media reports about sealed documents that have been discovered, because, quite frankly, all of that was news to me this morning as well. But I can tell you that the Australian government is not aware of any charges by the US government against Mr Assange. Our embassy in Washington continues to closely monitor developments. Mr Assange remains in the UK, awaiting the outcome of his appeal to the UK Supreme Court regarding his possible extradition to Sweden. We continue to monitor closely Mr Assange's legal situation and have sought and received assurances from Swedish authorities that he will be accorded due process if he is extradited. While Mr Assange was detained in the UK in 2010, Australian consular officials provided him with a high level of consular support. This remains available to him, as we have advised his lawyers on a number of occasions. I understand that officials were last in contact with Mr Assange's lawyers in late January 2012.
Senator Ludlam: I call a point of order, Mr President, on the direct relevance of the minister's answer. I did not refer to any of the Swedish prosecution matters or anything that is occurring in the UK. My question goes directly to whether the Australian government knows of the existence of a sealed indictment-that is just a 'yes' or a 'no'.
The PRESIDENT: The minister is answering the question from what I have heard.
Senator CHRIS EVANS: Mr President, I was trying to be helpful to the senator and give him what information I had, but as I said in the first part of my answer, the Australian government is not aware of any charges by the US government against Mr Assange. If that is all he wants to know, I will stop there.
Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (14:22): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Does the Prime Minister propose to take any action whatsoever relating to the existence of this indictment and the potential for Mr Assange to be transferred not to Sweden or to anywhere else but to the United States? Is the government intending to do anything at all to prevent this from happening? I am happy for the minister to provide any details at all about any action of any kind that the government proposes to take to prevent this extradition from occurring.
Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:22): As Senator Ludlam is aware, the government has clarified in answers to questions he has put on notice on this issue that the Australian government has asked the US government about these reports. The government has not received any advice of any grand jury investigation.
Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (14:23): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Perhaps the minister will take the matter on notice. Now that the dirty little secret is out, will the government stop the delays and obstructions in fulfilling-
Honourable senators interjecting-
The PRESIDENT: Order! Both sides, Senator Ludlam is entitled to be heard in silence.
Senator LUDLAM: Thank you, Mr President. There was a great deal of shrieking. I am interested to know whether the government will stop the delays and obstructions in fulfilling my freedom of information requests on this matter that went to the Prime Minister's office last year. Will the minister find out if there is a sealed indictment in the US and report back to the Senate? Will the minister ascertain whether or not such an indictment exists? (Time expired)
Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:24): If there are dirty little secrets, they have been kept secret from me, so I cannot help him in that regard. What I can tell him is that I understand he has made an FOI request, which was received by DFAT on 2 December last year. The response is being worked on by DFAT. I gather that is in line with Senator Ludlam's agreement on an extension of time. That is all I can say in response to his question.
Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (15:30): I move:
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research (Senator Evans) to a question without notice asked by Senator Ludlam today relating to Mr Julian Assange.
I recognise that Senator Evans was sent in here for question time in his representational capacity-this matter is not in his portfolio-but what a remarkable response I received from him. I asked whether the Prime Minister knew of a sealed indictment against Mr Julian Assange which has been made by a secret grand jury in the United States. We do not have the grand jury system in Australia; there are very few jurisdictions that still have grand juries. However, we need to learn a great deal about it.
What the Prime Minister sent Senator Evans in to question time with by way of a brief was remarkable. I have been foreshadowing that I was going to ask questions about Mr Assange all day. I told the press gallery this morning that I was going to ask the these questions of the Prime Minister, and I foreshadowed them in the MPI discussion earlier today. The first question was: what does the government know about this attack on the democratic rights and citizenship entitlements of an Australian? The answer that came back through the brief given to Senator Evans was vacant and ambiguous, and that is a perfect description of the Australian government's response to these matters over more than a year. When is the Australian government going to step up and do its job?
The Prime Minister of the country did not necessarily know, Senator Evans told us- although he did not directly engage with the substance of my question-whether or not such an indictment existed. So, even though some ex-State Department guy in Texas running a little intelligence organisation apparently knows-his knowledge has been revealed in an email which was one among a drop of five million emails from Stratfor-the Australian government apparently does not. Or maybe it does; that is what we are seeking to find out.
Mr Burton, who is the former deputy chief of counterterrorism at the US State Department and who is now the vice president of intelligence at Stratfor, turns up in a large number of this drop of five million emails. His Australia Day message for Australia in 2011 was:
Not for Pub-We have a sealed indictment on Assange. Pls protect.
The 'we' that he refers to is the US government. If our government knew of this, why weren't we told? If the Prime Minister-or perhaps the Foreign Minister or the Attorney-General-knew that the attack on Mr Assange was coming, why wasn't the information shared with the Australian people? Why wasn't it shared with me at any time during the interminable series of questions on notice I have asked and the freedom-of-information requests that I have lodged to try to assess exactly what the game is and how deeply involved and implicated in it the Australian government is? Some conspiracies turn out not to be theories at all.
The second question I put to Senator Evans was whether the Australian government had any intention of taking any action whatsoever-anything at all; name one thing-to protect against the very real threats now being levelled at this journalist, Mr Assange, who works for a publishing organisation. In a short time I will test the Senate's views on whether it agrees that Mr Assange is indeed a journalist and that the WikiLeaks organisation is a publishing organisation. There is a motion on the Notice Paper which I invite senators who are with us this afternoon to take a quick look at. It does not call on the Senate to do anything-heaven forbid!-but to recognise that Mr Assange is indeed a journalist, as the British High Court and the Walkley Foundation have done.
The Prime Minister, through the minister's vague and ambiguous answer this afternoon, did not seem to indicate that anything at all had been done. Here is an idea: call in the United States ambassador. That is why the United States ambassador is here in Canberra-to keep the flow of communi-cation open about matters of relevance between states, particularly between allied states. I have not had much luck in my request to meet with the ambassador; maybe it will jump a little bit higher up the to-do list after today-we will see.
The third thing I asked the Prime Minister was whether she plans on taking any action and whether the government would perhaps stop obstructing my freedom of information requests and put some material on the record. Let us know, because the Australian government in this matter will turn out to have been either complicit or ignorant-either we have been kept in the dark or the government has been keeping secrets. The Prime Minister and the rest of the cabinet may think that the rest of this information will be disclosed when they are good and ready. Perhaps it will be disclosed along with a story of somebody killed in action as a result of the wiki-drop. The existence of such a story has also been disclosed in the email drop, so perhaps the strategy now is to wait until the appropriate time and then tell the world public through the world's media organisations that there has been a death and that it is Julian Assange's fault and then to move to unseal the indictment. What a breathtakingly cynical strategy that would be!
I think it is time that the government put some material on the record, because-you know what?-you may not get to do it at a time of your choosing. Who knows what material WikiLeaks has on your cabinet and on what the Prime Minister knows. We will find out one way or another. Please, Prime Minister, take the lead and release this information. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.