For nine months, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London knowing that if he leaves, he'll be extradited to Sweden to face questioning about sexual-assault allegations and then possibly sent to the United States where officials are after him over WikiLeak's release of thousands of secret documents in 2010. But Mr. Assange has now hatched a novel escape plan: running for the Senate in Australia.
At first glance that might appear far-fetched. However, Mr. Assange and his supporters note that he is an Australian citizen and he's listed on the electoral roll in the state of Victoria, where his family still lives, making him eligible to run. They also point out that under Australia's complicated voting system for the upper chamber, where six senators will be elected in each state on Sept. 14, it only takes about 14 per cent of the vote to win a seat. And they say Mr. Assange is taking the political move seriously. He and his father, John Shipton, have helped set up the WikiLeaks Party in Australia, which is being formally launched Saturday and plans to field up to half a dozen Senate candidates across the country.
"It's a real campaign," said high-profile Australian lawyer Greg Barns, a long-time backer of Mr. Assange who became the party's national campaign manager this week. Mr. Assange and others believe "that there needs to be a transformation from WikiLeaks to involvement in the political process in Australia."
In an interview from Melbourne, Mr. Barns said Mr. Assange has received up to 25-per-cent support in recent polling and he appeals to Australians' sense of backing an outcast. "I think there is an element of Australians who love the underdog and see him as being an underdog against the U.S.," he said.
If Mr. Assange wins, the plan is to put pressure on the Australian government to help free him from the embassy. The government has shown little interest in Mr. Assange's case and Prime Minister Julia Gillard has condemned WikiLeaks' publications as "grossly irresponsible."
Mr. Barns believes a Senate win would force the government's hand. It would be "faced with a situation where the people of Victoria have elected a senator to represent them and the Australian government then has to decide are we going to use political and diplomatic capital to bring Julian Assange home, or are we going to allow him to continue to languish in the Ecuadorean embassy despite the fact that he has been elected," Mr. Barns said.
"I think that that presents a real dilemma for the Australian government, because you've this person who the voters want to represent them and he wasn't disqualified for any reason, he wasn't ineligible for any reason, there is no reason that he can't take his seat in the Senate other than the fact that he sought asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy."
All of this remains a long shot. Small parties rarely win seats in Australia's 76-seat Senate, which is dominated by the Labor and Liberal parties. There is only one independent member and one senator who represents the small Democratic Labor Party. Even if Mr. Assange won, he would have no automatic diplomatic protection as a senator and he could still be arrested by British police if he left the embassy. In a recent interview with an Australian website called The Conversation, Mr. Assange said, if he is elected in Australia, he believes Britain would be compelled to let him go or face an international diplomatic row.
And then there is the issue of campaigning. The official campaign period will begin in August and Mr. Assange won't likely be available to do any in-person events. Mr. Barns, a veteran political organizer who once led a failed bid to make Australia a republic, said much of the campaigning will be done online and through media interviews. But he acknowledged this won't be a typical campaign, noting that while he contacts Mr. Assange regularly by phone and e-mail, he has yet to meet him face to face.
"He's an unusual candidate," Mr. Barns said with a laugh. "You can't sort of ring him up and say let's go and have a coffee."