Australia’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ helped secure Julian Assange’s release

Strengthened ties with US and UK helped Anthony Albanese’s government make case for WikiLeaks founder

Julian Assange arrives in Bangkok, Thailand, following his release from prison. Photograph: @WikiLeaks/PA Wire

Julian Assange’s impending return to his native Australia follows years of “quiet diplomacy” and public protests as Canberra took advantage of strengthened ties with Washington and London to make the case for the WikiLeaks founder’s release.

Anthony Albanese’s Labor government had raised the issue with officials from US president Joe Biden down, as contacts have intensified under the auspices of the 2021 Aukus deal with Washington and London.

Greg Barns, a lawyer who has worked on the case for 11 years, hailed Albanese’s administration as “the first Australian government to elevate the Assange case to a leader-to-leader level”.

Barns added there was “no doubt” the Labor government had been instrumental in the plea bargain allowing the Queensland-born activist to walk free.


Under the deal, Assange is set to plead guilty to conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified information relating to US national defence. He is scheduled to appear on Wednesday before a court in the Northern Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth north of Guam. He is then expected to fly to Australia.

Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese and US secretary of state Antony Blinken in Washington last year. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Albanese has long called for Assange to be set free after 12 years of confinement and imprisonment over one of the biggest leaks of classified material in US history. But he has also faced increasing pressure to secure Assange’s release, ranging across the Australian political spectrum, from the left-wing Greens to the rural National Party.

The Labor government’s emphasis on “quiet diplomacy” contrasts with the previous prime minister, Scott Morrison, who adopted a more assertive approach to international affairs.

There have been signs of strains. At a meeting in Brisbane last July, US secretary of state Antony Blinken, standing next to Australia’s foreign and defence ministers, said Assange’s case had been discussed but emphasised that Australia needed to “understand our concerns”.

He added that the WikiLeaks founder had been charged with “very serious criminal conduct”.

But a month later Caroline Kennedy, the US ambassador to Australia, said there could be a resolution to the case.

As contacts intensified, Albanese asked Biden about the case during a visit to Washington in October but added that he had not asked the US president to directly intervene.

Mark Dreyfus, Australia’s attorney general, also held talks with his counterpart Merrick Garland.

Albanese’s appointment of Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister, as ambassador to the US, was a further boost to negotiations with Washington.

In an indication of the high level of involvement of Australia’s mission to the UK, Stephen Smith, Australia’s high commissioner, travelled on the plane with Assange after his release from Belmarsh prison in London.

Washington has long argued that Assange put lives at risk through WikiLeaks’ publication of leaks concerning US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But some Assange supporters in Australia have depicted him as a political prisoner – he spent seven years taking refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy and five in Belmarsh prison as he fought US extradition requests. Others objected to the “extraterritoriality’ of the US extradition attempt or simply argued the case had gone on too long.

A month after Albanese was elected in 2022, one pro-Assange parliamentary group accused him of “abandoning an Australian hero” after the UK agreed to extradite the Australian citizen to the US.

In a sign of further pressure, the Australian parliament’s lower house passed a motion calling for Assange’s return in February this year. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024