The scene is the Provincial Hotel, a Melbourne pub in dinky Fitzroy. It was in Fitzroy that the WikiLeaks Party of Australia was officially launched, fittingly from a place filled with books. (A party of the fearless publishers, putting fearsome material out there.)
It was in Fitzroy that this experiment in democracy should commune, be it with enthusiasm tinged with that slight sense of funereal ambience; be it with a sense of accomplishment. WikiLeaks had come out of the shadows of a shock trooper outfit, an activist publishing group keen on finding a political platform in a parliament. Far from being the “get out of gaol” card it was assumed to be for Assange, it would be publication by politics, rather than politics through publication. The first port of call would be the Australian Senate.
The faces there on Saturday were a treat: the computer programmer who had worked for Microsoft for over a decade; former supporters of the Greens Party who, while still sympathetic, wanted to see a whiff of freshness in the Australian political landscape. The Greens had, after all, gone beige in their accommodation of other parties, the vagaries of political ambition. There were long term unionists. There was a wonderful supporter who spoke of family travails – she was only in Melbourne to support the WikiLeaks project, but was otherwise located in another state. This was tender, fragile democracy, throbbing, alive, authentic in the true sense of the spirit of demos.
There were brilliant mathematicians who had spent hours assembling graphic posters and images on how to vote for Julian Assange for the day of the elections. It was patchwork magnificence. Before the break of dawn, posters of the man in light pastel hues were being placed on fences and entry points for the Australian voter. Everyone was chiming in. All volunteers had their designated polling booths to man on the day.
Then, the challenge as to how to impress the voter on what manner of voting he or she would undertake.
This was itself going to be challenge, notably for the Senate – the Australian ballot sheet for the upper house was so long it resembled a bridal dress. Minor parties had proliferated. In Victoria alone, there were 97 boxes to fill. For voters going “below the line”, a term that almost sounds rude, each box would have to be filled consecutively. To spare the voter that taxing task, the Australian Electoral Commission supposedly does electors a favour by honouring the preference “deals” that are made by parties vying for Senate seats. For voters wishing to evacuate from the polling booth expeditiously, they can place a “1” in a box of their favoured party above the line.
It did not take long to see the narrative of absurdity move to its next phase. The Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party will get the sixth senate seat from Victoria. Its policies are almost entirely absent, apart from favouring those of motorists. In Western Australia, that honour goes to the Australian Sports Party, again with no policies other than those extolling outdoor living. With primary vote percentages of 0.53 per cent and 0.22 per cent respectively, a fundamental deficiency is at play. The “recreational” lobby is proving mightier than policy, thriving on its vapid innocuousness.
Assange, Australia’s most notorious publishing export since Rupert Murdoch, and the better part of that, will not find himself in Parliament. Nor will the other candidates of the WikiLeaks Party. This might propel one to the depths of depression, though it shows yet another feature of the preferential system at play. A fangless upper house, one where broader interests are simply not represented, comforts government. Out of such disparateness, ineffectualness grows.
The system cries out for reform, and the cry is something that major parties gag with tenacious enthusiasm. Better the party of silly hats or extreme family values than a party that inverts the system altogether. Like the Catholic Church, Australia’s parliamentary system always has room for some charismatics, provided they channel, rather than flout, its values. It is also in the interest of major parties to make minor parties fight like over-aroused animals at play: each and every party needs to be preferenced in an order. For that reason, a convenient fiction is propagated. “You preferenced a far-right party, or the nationalists,” comes the usual wail. Well, yes, but so did everybody else. All parties are preferenced, whether at box 50 or box 90.
It remains to be seen whether a confrontational, virtuously aggressive, and dedicated project such as WikiLeaks can translate into Parliaments on a global scale. The Australian experiment was brilliant in what it managed: social media bursts, mobilisation of volunteers, distribution of merchandise at short notice, the marketing of posters. A fundraising target of $700,000, modest in most political war chests, was never reached, peaking at a minute $70,000. This was, in no small part, due to the financial embargo imposed on the WikiLeaks organisation itself.
The party also managed to make a presence despite suffering a bout of resignations from its National Council and one candidate at a vital point of the campaign. The issue, as ever, was how preferences were distributed. The political body could not reach homeostasis in time. Such is the lot of the eclectic and confused: whether political acts of moral outrage should be internalised or be paraded as acts of apologia and self-justification. The naïve are long in activism but short in politics.
The project has detractors from all sides, some within the cyber hacking community and the high priests of the political system sceptical of its worth. Change, argue the hacking ideologues, can never come from within but an imposition from without. To be within it is tantamount to collaboration. Such a view is limited, assuming a docile electorate compliant in the system they participate in. The lamps are already there. What is required are enthusiastic lamp lighters to take charge.
The finale to the evening was Assange being beamed into the Provincial via Skype. There was suspense – a local DJ had been hired to take control of the room at 10. The publican was getting edgy; skimpy girls were starting to groove on the floor in anticipation of the music blast. Still no Assange. The time was 10.15 in the evening. This was yet another absurdity: DJ faces off with Assange. Who is to win?
The dispute was resolved. Assange appeared on screen from the Ecuadorean embassy in London. The skimpy girls, jaws dropping, stopped dancing. He thanked the efforts of supporters and candidates. He chastised the detractors. He praised the enterprise and wondered where matters will go from here. The publishing project remains supreme but manifesting it politically is the ongoing question we shall keep asking. And in so doing, the absurdity of the human condition we have seen, one that tolerates punishing those who expose abuse and protects those who hide it, will be combated.