New Australian PM Squandering Leverage on Assange

UPDATE: The new Australian PM met Joe Biden Tuesday with no sign he raised Julian Assange, while committing Australia to U.S. security policy in the Pacific, reports Joe Lauria.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Australian Opposition Party Leadership, including Australian Labor Party Leader Anthony Albanese in Melbourne on Feb. 11, 2022. (State Dept./Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain)

By Joe Lauria
in London
Special to Consortium News

Anthony Albanese, the newly-elected Australian prime minister, may have passed up the best opportunity he will ever have to exchange Julian Assange’s freedom for Australia’s continued cooperation with U.S. aims in the Pacific region.

Albanese had his first bilateral meeting on Tuesday with U.S. President Joe Biden after a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) summit in Tokyo, when the leaders of the four nations — Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. — met to discuss relations with China. 

Reports on the Biden-Albanese one-on-one make no mention of Assange. At the opening of their meeting Biden launched a charm offensive that Albanese ate up.  The Melbourne daily The Age reported:

“The way Joe Biden greeted Anthony Albanese on Tuesday suggested the US president and Australian prime minister will get along just fine.

Biden pointed to Albanese as soon as he saw him arrive for the official photographs at the Quad leaders’ summit on Tuesday. The president put a hand on his arm and greeted him with a warm smile.  …

Once the formalities were over, Biden drew Albanese in close again. He put his arm over Albanese’s shoulder as they walked toward the meeting room …. In fact, Biden hammed it up to make sure everyone knew the relationship between the US and Australia was in safe hands on both sides of the Pacific. …

Later, in their formal bilateral meeting, when Albanese spoke about his travel across the US as a young man and revealed he had met with the National Rifle Association, Biden jokingly stood up, pretending to leave their bilateral talks in disgust. Albanese burst out laughing, as did most others in the room, before Biden reached out to shake his hand. ‘You’re a brave man,’ he said.”

Much of the substance of their bilateral was telegraphed in advance, and it did not include Assange. In remarks Monday before he even left for Japan, Albanese had already said his Labor government is fully on board with the Quad’s agenda, as the previous government of Scott Morrison had been.

More importantly, Albanese said Australia would sign on to Biden’s just announced creation of a new, 13-nation Asian economic bloc aimed at opposing China’s economic dominance in the region, according to reports in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald  

Biden had only just announced the new bloc on Monday. Before he was even sworn in, Albanese apparently told Biden about Australia joining the bloc during a telephone conversation they had on Sunday as Biden flew to Japan.

Albanese was quoted in The Australian as saying that,  “He would ‘send a message to the world that there’s a new government in Australia’, while reassuring partners there would be ‘continuity in the way that we have respect for democracy and the way that we value our friendships and long time alliances.’”

Albanese also spoke with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The Herald reported:

“Albanese spoke to UK counterpart Boris Johnson while flying to Tokyo on Monday. A spokesman described the conversation as friendly and positive. The discussion with Johnson included a commitment from Albanese to support the AUKUS alliance on nuclear submarines and talks on climate change.”

Blinken meets with Australian Labor Party Leader Anthony Albanese and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong, in Melbourne Australia, on Feb. 11, 2022. (State Dept./Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain)

Apparently asking for nothing in return, Albanese gave away the store to Biden and Johnson, not even raising Assange’s name, according to these reports. He had the leverage of asking Biden to drop the case and Johnson to block the extradition in exchange for continuity from the Morrison government on AUKUS, the Quad, and on joining Biden’s new economic bloc. 

Of course, not everything discussed between the leaders was reported. There remains an outside chance Albanese did raise Assange in his conversations with Biden.  But there has been no movement on Assange after Albanese gave Biden and Johnson what they wanted. 

At his bilateral with Biden Albanese may have had one piece of leverage left. Biden’s remark Monday that the U.S. would militarily defend Taiwan broke with previous U.S. and Australian policy.  The Guardian reported Monday: “Just six months ago, Labor criticised the then-defence minister Peter Dutton for telling the Australian newspaper: ‘It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action’ in Taiwan.”

If Biden asked Albanese to reverse Labor’s policy and commit to military action against China over Taiwan — a very serious request — did Albanese raise the subject of Assange?  Afterward, he told reporters: “I confirm there’s no change in Australia’s position. There should be no unilateral change to the status quo. Our position has not changed.”

With British Home Secretary Priti Patel’s decision on extradition imminent, it may have been Albanese’s best chance to make good on his past comments that “enough is enough” and that Assange should be freed. 

Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former U.N. correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers, including The Montreal Gazette and The Star of Johannesburg. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London, a financial reporter for Bloomberg News and began his professional work as a 19-year old stringer for The New York Times.  He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe  


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11 comments for “New Australian PM Squandering Leverage on Assange

  1. Myra Sands
    May 25, 2022 at 07:39

    How unutterably disgusting if indeed Albanese failed, in private, to bring up Australian citizen, publisher of the truth,besmirched, incarcerated, tortured and completely innocent Julian Assange with Biden when he had the chance. Equally disgusting that , in public, he simply continued the policies of his unwanted predecessor Morrison, thereby consolidating the global cynical appraisal of our ghastly politicians. Priti Patel, sadly, being one of them.

    • Caroline
      May 26, 2022 at 18:35

      As an Australian citizen who voted Labor (Greens second) in the vain hope of change, I totally agree with you Myra.

  2. Foggy Dew
    May 24, 2022 at 18:56

    Don’t expect anything from Albanese on this he will be right onboard with those who run things.Once you get elected to office you get given “the talk”by those who REALLY are in charge and told what will be tolerated and what wont be .Change of leader means nothing …one out ,one in don’t rock the boat and you will be fine…..just leave the man behind the curtain to pull the levers

    • Andrew Nichols
      May 25, 2022 at 23:34

      Why on earth would you expect any change? We are a colony and Biden said before he was elected that “Nothing fundamental is gonna change”

  3. J Danski
    May 24, 2022 at 13:29

    One can only hope now that Albanese brings up the subject sotto voce with Biden. J

  4. Lois Gagnon
    May 24, 2022 at 11:37

    It appears that Biden’s trip to Japan where he met the Australian prime minister was not in support of the new government so much as a don’t dare cross the empire trip. And sadly, it looks like the message was received. We don’t know what was said behind closed doors to arm twist Albanese into submission, but it obviously worked. Or as is often the case, he said what was perceived to be needed to get elected and made the switch post election deception.

  5. rosemerry
    May 24, 2022 at 11:00

    Absolutely disgusting. “Labor” was supposed to be an improvement on the former mob, and Assange was the only tiny point of divergence I had heard. How sad if his fate is now in the hands of humanitarian champions Priti Patel and Boris Johnson.

    • JonT
      May 24, 2022 at 11:36

      I really do not think there is much difference between the political parties, and not just Australia but here too in the UK, when it comes to dealing with the Americans.

  6. Vera Gottlieb
    May 24, 2022 at 10:46

    Would an obedient ‘lap dog’ dare pee against his master’s leg???

  7. Tim N
    May 24, 2022 at 08:43

    My guess is, with the new prime Minister already groveling in public, Assange’s plight will not come up. And if it does, Biden will dress down the new prime minister for his cheek. I hope I’m wrong.

  8. JonT
    May 24, 2022 at 08:09

    Yet again it looks as if Julian Assange is going to be let down once again by his own country. We can only hope that Albanese has the guts to make a stand against the good old US of A and demand that Assange is freed.

Comments are closed.