Australian electoral affairs made a rare entree into the international news yesterday when Julian Assange announced he would run for a seat in the Senate at the next federal election. You can read about this at Al-Jazeera, the Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph (to name but the first three that I picked out from a Google News search), or by entering “Assange” into the Twitter search engine, where you will be informed that “Julian Assange Incar Kursi Senat Australia”, that “se postulará Julian Assange a un escaño para el senado de Australia”, and that “Julian Assange will in die Politik gehen”. Better yet, the Huffington Post currently carries a big-arse capitalised headline atop its front page which screams, “SENATOR ASSANGE?”
Assange had an electoral learning process of his own which played out live on Twitter yesterday morning, with a first message from the Wikileaks feed announcing only that the organisation would be “fielding a candidate to run against Julia Gillard in her home seat of Laylor (sic)”. Very shortly afterwards, a second tweet declared: “We have discovered that it is possible for Julian Assange to run for the Australian Senate while detained. Julian has decided to run.” The spelling error in the initial tweet betrayed a curious ignorance of Australian history, given that the electorate in question is named after Peter Lalor, who led the famous Eureka Rebellion at the Ballarat goldfields in 1854. One would have thought that Lalor, a radical activist who saw his efforts crudely suppressed by the authorities before going on to a distinguished career as a parliamentarian, might have been better known to Assange – if not to the extent that he would have spelt his name correctly, then at least so far that he might have misspelled it in a phonetically correct manner (“Lawlor”). But I digress.
The Prime Minister has many things to be concerned so far as the next election is concerned, but the threat to her from a Wikileaks-backed candidate in her own seat is not among them. It is quite normal for sitting prime ministers to attract large fields of opponents seeking publicity and/or self-aggrandisement, and par for the course that they make little impression. It is a little-remembered fact that the election for Lalor in 2010 was yet another Gillard-versus-Rudd contest – the Rudd in this case being Van Rudd, the Vietnamese-Australian nephew of the former prime minister who has made a minor name for himself as something of a left-wing agitator. Rudd finished second last in a field of nine ahead of hardy perennial Marcus Aussie-Stone (whose 22 runs for public office have included tilts against Billy McMahon, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard) with 516 votes, an eighth of the 4 per cent he needed to recover his deposit. John Howard’s opponents in Bennelong at the 2004 election included one Andrew Wilkie, then running with the Greens. While Howard indeed went down to defeat in 2007, the bloated field of 13 candidates had little to do with it, with Howard and Maxine McKew scoring more than 90 per cent of the vote between them. Gillard is in any case far more secure in Lalor, where she scored a towering 64.3 per cent of the primary vote in 2010. However much of the vote a Wikileaks candidate might be able to secure, it is likely that a very limited share of it will come directly at her expense.
Only with the announcement of Assange’s Senate ambitions did the prospect of a Wikileaks election campaign become of real interest. However, he first faces the hurdle of his eligibility to nominate. Clearly Assange believes there is no problem here, but from what I can gather this has been based on a determination that being under house arrest in the UK need not of itself disqualify him. Another difficulty I might have anticipated would be the requirement that he be qualified to be a voter (and I should issue a bush-lawyering warning on the remainder of this paragraph, pending the receipt of advice from wiser heads (UPDATE: See below) – neither John Wanna or George Williams raised this issue when queried by the Huffington Post). The key word here is “qualified” – a prospective candidate need not actually be enrolled, thanks to an amendment which parliamentarians made for their own benefit so they would not be disqualified if they failed to keep track of their paperwork and dropped off the roll (which happened to Victorian Shadow Treasurer Robert Dean at the 2002 state election in Victoria, where no such escape clause existed). However, a voter who no longer resides in the country will be removed from the roll if they do not make an active effort to remain there, and I would have thought Assange would have perceived himself as having bigger fish to fry over the past few years. (UPDATE: I can confirm that Assange is not on the electoral roll.) If so, Assange would be allowed only three years after his departure to get back on the roll, which raises the question of when he ceased to be legally resident. As far as I can tell, he has not unequivocally resided in Australia since 2007. I presume that a legal incapacity to enrol can be equated to a lack of qualification to be a voter, although perhaps there is a loophole here somewhere waiting to be exploited.
UPDATE: Wiser heads have duly advised, and it looks like I may be correct. Graeme Orr of the University of Queensland writes:
On a quick re-read of the Act, especially the Byzantine s 94, you are largely right – though there may be a quibble about the dates. Let’s assume he didn’t somehow stay on the roll by inertia (that’s possible, but I dare say tomorrow some official somewhere will be checking and if so deleting him). Then it’s a question of whether he was motivated enough to keep up being an ‘eligible overseas elector’, by declaring an intention to return, then actually voting each three years. I suspect when Assange left the ‘eligible overseas voter’ law was in its relatively generous current state. Manne’s Monthly article would be more specific on his life, but from memory he was still studying in Oz six or seven years ago. Say he left in 2005 (he appeared to leave in 2007 – Ed), if he had declared an intent to return to Oz by 2011, within 3 years years of departure, and kept voting, he can keep renewing that right as long as he likes, by declaring regularly an intent to still return. (However much ‘intent’ is thwarted by detentions!) As you say, unless he has been hyper diligent in paperwork from abroad it’s likely would have dropped off the roll: if so, perhaps his UK lawyer has just looked at s 93 and seen that an ‘Aust citizen’ is qualified to enrol, and missed the bit about ‘subject to PtVIII’ (ie being entitled to enrol, which picks up s 94 and the labyrinth the Southern Cross Group is always agitating about). Since his name isn’t John Smith the AEC could confirm all this quite quickly – assuming no privacy issues as the roll is otherwise public… Curiously, he could be convicted under either foreign law or Australian law, but still nominate. Bobby Sand like he couldn’t physically take up his seat. Which then would be vacated by non-attendance sooner or later, and filled by the state parliament, possibly very partisanly, unless a ‘Wikileaks’ party is registered. All good fun, to speculate upon speculation.
Assuming Assange’s confidence in his capacity to run is well founded, he will then of course have the more conventional electoral hurdles to clear. In case any overseas readers happen to have stumbled upon this post, I will henceforth abandon my usual presumption that readers are well acquainted with the intricacies of Australian politics. The Australian Senate was modelled on the US Senate to the extent that members are elected on a state basis, and that all states return the same number of Senators regardless of their population. However, whereas American states elect two Senators at alternating elections, the six Australian states elect 12 Senators (there are a further two each for the two small territories), with six from each elected at a normal “half-Senate election”, which is the kind that will almost certainly be held next year. These Senators are elected through a complex system of proportional representation. In the recent past, seats in the Australian Senate have been won with as little as 1.8 per cent and 2.3 per cent of the vote, in the respective cases of Steve Fielding of Family First in 2004 and John Madigan of the Democratic Labor Party in 2010 (both cases in Victoria). However, such are the intricacies of the Senate electoral system that these two candidates had many things running in their favour which will not avail Assange’s party (I presume he will indeed form such a party, although he could theoretically run as an independent).
The key issue here is that parties are required to rank all candidates running for the election in their order of preference (voters have the option of determining their own order, but this is exhausting work and few make the effort). If a party has votes left over after electing as many Senators as its share of the vote entitles it to, or if it fails to win any seats it all, its surplus votes are distributed to other parties according to its preference ranking. This can be a boon to minor parties which are deemed inoffensive by the two major parties, such as the aforementioned Family First and Democratic Labor Party, as they can receive the surplus votes of each. However, if a party is seen as unduly radical, the major parties can make life very difficult for it by placing it at or near the bottom of their preference order. Such was the case with the anti-immigration One Nation party in 1998 and 2001, which in 1998 polled 9.0 per cent of the national vote but only won a seat in its heartland state of Queensland.
If that’s how things play out for a Wikileaks party, it will face a formidable challenge in assembling the requisite 14.3 per cent quota for election in any given state. The party’s only potential source of substantial preference votes would be the Greens, who in 2010 won a seat in each of the six states with a vote ranging from 10.6 per cent in the largest state of New South Wales to 21.3 per cent in the smallest state of Tasmania. Given that the Greens and Assange would be contesting the same ideological territory, there seems little prospect that the two between them could score the 28.6 per cent required for them to both win seats, given the extent to which Australian electoral politics is dominated by the two major parties. The most likely scenario for an Assange victory in whichever state he chose to run would involve him taking slightly over half the Greens vote, reducing them to less than a quota and thus depriving them of their seat. He would then reach a quota and win a seat after the distribution of the Greens’ preferences – assuming of course that they chose to direct them to him, and not to the Labor Party. So as a rough rule of thumb, and guessing as best as one can about how the parties will order their preferences, Assange would be aiming for the support of about one in ten voters.