Its leader sits getting thinner and paler by the minute in an embassy in London. Its policies seem more idealistic than mechanistic. The likelihood of it winning a senate seat in the Australian Parliament in the 7 September national poll is slim. But WikiLeaks Party senate candidate for Victoria, Leslie Cannold, warming her hands from the Melbourne chill on a latte in a side-street cafe, isn’t fazed. For her the campaign is about more than numbers.
She sees her nomination as part of a “paradigm shift from secrecy to openness”.
Central to its attempt to balance upon this shifting political landscape, the WikiLeaks Party (WLP) has registered to put forward seven nominees for senate (Upper House) seats in three states (NSW, Victoria and Western Australia) in the upcoming poll. It’s a bold if not foolhardy move as small, nominally one-issue parties not only lose most times, but can be made cartoonish by mainstream media which is often keen to deride the “wacky” margins created by the three-yearly election cycle. That’s if these parties are not entirely ignored.
If WikiLeaks the brand has suffered by being too closely tied to Julian Assange’s plight, then its profile may be further sullied by a negative media, a poor campaign and a dud conclusion.
Undeterred, Ms Cannold, an academic and activist, is keen to talk about protection for whistleblowers and for the media that covers them. According to the WLP policy statement, its policy oscillates six major categories – Transparency, Media Diversity, Surveillance and Privacy, Protection for Whistleblowers and Journalists, Climate Change and Asylum Seekers.
Details, though, are limited. The party has sent out policy messages about funding and anti-privatisation for and the independence of national broadcasters such as the ABC and SBS, about repealing the Telecommunications Act pertaining to data screening and easing the tortuous path for asylum seekers arriving by boat.
Cannold wants to talk to the Big Picture. “We are interested in an entirely different way of delivering government – it’s a global goal that filters into everything we do.”
Feminism is close to Cannold’s heart and she keenly defends her support for Assange, towards whom some feminists cast a gimlet eye. For her, “having so many women in the party structure and so many female candidates (three) is the most powerful message you could send that this is a party that can defend women”.
She noted that when the party was announced, many women colleagues had doubts. There are the rape claims made against the Wikileaks’ co-founder, Julian Assange, and the fact that “the whistleblower world”, by her own description, is “very male-oriented”.
As such, criticisms of Assange’s willingness to tie his own plight to that of the WikiLeaks organisation, now including a political party, are refuted by Ms Cannold. “We have credibility that comes from the fact that we are connected to WikiLeaks and to Julian’s fearlessness,” she argues.
But, for all the Big Picture statements, no one should be lulled into assuming the WLP will be able to fly above grubby electioneering. Australian senate seats hinge on preferences. The system used requires nominating candidates to construct preference deals so they can be listed “above the line” on ballot papers. This allows voters to simply vote for parties rather than for separate candidates below the line, which run into high numbers (complaints have been raised about how small the font must be to accommodate all the names this election), and is supposed to lessen informal votes brought about by confusing ballot papers.
So, the WLP is obliged to compete on this level and the issue of preferences is acute. It seems unlikely there will be deals with far right parties, and most likely there will be preference arrangements with left parties like the Greens. But, somewhere along the line, if it is to be serious election player, the WLP may need to get into bed with one of both of the major parties, neither of whom have been supportive of WikiLeaks’ actions nor especially willing to ease Mr Assange’s current plight. It seems to whiff of opportunism.
Ms Cannold isn’t keen to discuss preferences, noting the matter is “part of the campaign” and is in the purview of campaign manager Greg Barns, adding there is no election playbook “as yet”. She offers no details of her own choices beyond claiming that there are some parties she won’t align with, such as the right of spectrum Family First and DLP. Both parties are, though, according to reports, in play as preference partners. Ultimately, Ms Cannold may have to fall in with the party regimen on this score.
The WLP believes it can somehow manoeuvre a balance of power position – rather like the Greens and the Australian Democrats before them have managed – using the usually small number of primary votes required for senate victory (hence the value of preferences) to grab a seat on the red leather and use it to push and pull the government of the day.
It’s unclear what will happen should Assange win a seat and remain in exile when Parliament sits with a number of permutations seemingly possible, including a possible High Court challenge and/or disqualification from the Senate. Most scenarios suggest Ms Cannold may well sit in Parliament if Mr Assange’s is unable.
But, a balance of power may be the least of Ms Cannold’s or the WLP’s concerns. Juggling the wobbling plates of the preference game – both politically and reputationally – will alone require the flexibility and poise of a Yoga master. But, given all the obstacles, balance enough to simply stand up and campaign seems most problematic of all.