By ALLISON HORE
On Tuesday, Sydney local Matthew Drake-Brockman began a hunger strike outside the office of Tanya Plibersek over her silence on the plight of Julian Assange. Unfortunately, the strike came to an early conclusion when he was moved on by police later that same afternoon.
Mr. Drake-Brockman, who ran as an independent for Wentworth in the 2019 federal election, said he would not eat or unchain himself from Ms. Plibersek’s Redfern office until she “reverses her unprincipled silence” on the extradition of the Wikileaks founder to the USA.
“I’m declaring a hunger strike as a way to attempt to have Tanya Plibersek recognise she needs to put her conscience ahead of politics; defend press freedom and support Australian citizen Julian Assange,” he said in a statement preceding the strike.
As storm clouds gathered overhead on Tuesday morning, and with no idea how long he would be striking for, Mr. Drake-Brockman told City Hub he was willing to put his health on the line for the chance to confront the member for Sydney.
Mr. Drake-Brockman said he had tried to reach out to Ms. Plibersek through more traditional means but he was unsatisfied with her response. Ms. Plibersek had informed Drake-Brockman she had already met with other interested parties to discuss the Assange issue and she did not have time to meet with him.
“[Julian Assange] might be extradited to the US for revealing war crimes, including the killing of journalists, and my local member sees fit to evade my questions, not reverse her position, and live in the little bubble that she’s in,” Mr. Drake-Brockman said.
In 2010, Assange’s website, Wikileaks, published almost 400,000 United States Army field reports from the Iraq war between 2004 and 2009. The files recorded more than 60,000 civilian deaths, including the deaths of two Reuters journalists who were listed as “enemy killed in action”.
Assange now sits in a British prison and faces extradition to the United States over his indictment with 17 spying charges and one charge of computer hacking regarding his publication of the classified documents. Assange’s lawyers say the case is “politically motivated” and say he would be unable to receive a fair trial in the United States.
Walking the party line
Sitting on an armchair and chained to the building, Mr. Drake-Brockman watched as Ms. Plibersek left the office and got into a car, presumably heading off for parliamentary duties.
He said he had informed Ms. Plibersek’s he would be there and was disappointed she did not take the opportunity to meet with him. But said he was willing to strike as long as it took and believed his action would “resonate with many Australians”.
“I would’ve liked for her to come down now but she’s seemingly left for the day,” he said.
“If you can’t get a leading figure from one of the major parties to represent and speak on behalf of a huge portion of the population, where does that leave democracy?”
Unfortunately for Mr. Drake-Brockman, the strike ended before the day was up, and before he was able to speak with Ms. Plibersek. As afternoon fell he was ejected by police for not having a protest permit.
“I was basically faced with a fine if I did not comply,” he said.
“There were five police plus two police rescue so I felt I had very little choice.”
More than half a million people have signed a petition on Change.org calling for Assange to be freed and showing concern for the legal precedent it would set for a non-American journalist to be extradited to the USA for exposing American war crimes.
In February this year the petition was tabled in the house of representatives by independent MP Andrew Wilkie. It was the largest ever “e-petition” to be tabled in the house.
Mr. Drake-Brockman commended Ms. Plibersek on her principled stance on a number of social justice issues, including her advocacy for ABC Journalist Peter Greste who was imprisoned in Egypt for his reporting there. But he said while Mr. Greste “undoubtedly” deserved Ms. Plibersek’s support, he condemned her “double standards” for not showing the same support for Assange.
Other Federal Labor MPs have voiced their opposition to the extradition of Assange including six backbenchers who are members of the Parliamentary Friends of the Bring Julian Assange Home group. Mr. Drake-Brockman said Ms. Plibersek, as deputy leader of the party, is “listening to her party and they’re playing it safe.”
Mr. Drake-Brockman said the “character smears” have dominated the discussion around Assange distract from the issue at hand which he said has broader reaching implications for the press than just one man’s legal battle. One of these is the sexual assault allegations made against Assange during a trip to Stockholm in 2010. Last year, Swedish investigators dropped the case.
“Obviously there’s the sexual assault allegations, which if course if that was brought to trial and he was found guilty, obviously I’d support punishment. But obviously [the trial] didn’t happen,” he said.
Last week, on November 9, the Australian senate passed a motion which acknowledged the plight of Assange.
Mr. Drake-Brockman hopes Ms. Plibersek will join her Upper House and backbench colleagues in acknowledging Assange’s plight. He said despite the strike being unsuccessful and being moved on by police, he has “not given up”.
“I could be wrong but getting her to move will open up the much needed debate on this country and hopefully shift the attitudes of some senior politicians,” he said.