Australia’s top union body passes motion demanding freedom for Julian Assange

by Davey Heller, 11th May 2021

On March 10th/11th the Executive of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) passed a motion calling on the US Government to drop its appeal against the court’s decision to release Julian Assange, and calling for Julian’s immediate release from Belmarsh prison. The ACTU is Australia’s central body of trade unions. The motion repeatedly stated that Assange had only been prosecuted for his work revealing US war crimes. It was moved by the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance (MEAA) of which Assange is a member. However, the motion was buried by the MEAA and the ACTU, and was not made public until it was shared on social media six weeks later by Wikileaks. Despite the contradictory class forces at work in ACTU’s passing and then “disappearing” the resolution, the political significance of Australia’s highest union body formally adopting such a pro-Assange motion still remains. Whatever the cynical motivations expressed in passing this motion, it is now a political “fact on the ground” and is the official policy of the Australian trade union movement.  Following the advice to campaigners given by Julian Assange in a letter from Belmarsh in 2019, workers must organise in his defence in their associations and workplaces. The ACTU motion can and must be used to build further the campaign to free Julian Assange in the working class.

The motion was moved by Paul Murphy, the CEO of the MEAA. It is reproduced in full below:r


Julian Assange

ACTU Executive supports global calls for the United States Government to drop its appeal to the British High Court over the rejection of its request to extradite Australian citizen and MEAA member Julian Assange on charges of espionage for the publication of information revealing US war crimes.

Julian Assange, the found of Wikileaks, which received the 2010 Walkley for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism, should be immediately released from Belmarsh Prison. His continuing detention in a high-security cell is unjustified, particularly in light of his well-documented health problems.

We further support the campaign for all extradition proceedings to be dropped, allowing for his safe return to Australia.

We note the support for Assange from journalist unions around the world, including the MEAA, and also the International Federation of Journalists. The charges against Assange relate entirely to his work which brought to light serious war crimes committed by the US military in Iraq. Continuing to prosecute him for this work constitutes an attack on journalists, journalism and the public right to know.

We urge the Australian Government to do all in its power to lobby US authorities to end their prosecution.

Moved: Paul Murphy MEAA


As stated the motion only became public via Wikileaks on April 29th when it was shared on Facebook and Twitter. Whilst the Wikileaks tweet was shared by MEAA President Marcus Strom, it wasn’t shared on the either the Twitter accounts of the MEAA or the ACTU, nor on the accounts of anyone on the ACTU Executive nor on Paul Murphy’s own Twitter account. No press releases have been issued and the motion was not announced on either the ACTU or MEAA websites. It is therefore not surprising that the motion has received zero media coverage nor has it shown up in Google or other search engines.

The class tensions at work

The fact that this motion was passed by ACTU, a body  representing over 1.8 million workers from 36 affiliated unions, demonstrates that the trade union bureaucracies recognize the  reservoir of support that exists for the brave actions of Assange in exposing US war crimes amongst the Australian working class. As Social Democratic institutions the unions rest for support on the working class so this wellspring of support for Assange exerts pressure on the ACTU and the MEAA, of which Assange is a member, to at least appear to be supporting Assange.

But Social Democratic institutions are committed to working within the capitalist system. In practice their leaderships ultimately serve the interests of the ruling class as they work in tandem to control the working class and prevent any sign of revolutionary working class opposition to capitalism.

The trade union bureaucrats of ACTU long ago made peace with the ruling class. The ACTU is entirely subordinated to the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and its right wing pro-business agenda. There is a veritable revolving door between past Secretaries and officials and the ACTU and the ALP Parliamentary Party.

So, whilst the ACTU passed the motion in support of Assange it is unwillingly to publicize this support or to campaign for his freedom. As the motion makes clear, Assange is only in jail for exposing the war crimes of US imperialism. And Both ACTU and the ALP are committed to a political alliance with American imperialism. In fact, Wikileaks has revealed that top union affiliated Labor Party figures were “assets” for the US Embassy in Australia and made regular visits. Some of these figures helped remove Kevin Rudd as PM for straying too far from the bellicose US line on China.  When Assange and Wikileaks in 2010 released a torrent of evidence of US crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, then Labor PM Julia Gillard, installed by the same US connected Labor figures who removed Rudd, stated that Assange had acted illegally, long before he was ever charged.

It should come as no surprise that after an initial show of support for Assange in 2010, ACTU President Ged Kearney, (now ALP member of Parliament), publicly presented Assange his MEAA Union card via his lawyers. Since then Kearney has remained utterly silent on Julian’s persecution.

The last public gesture of support for Assange from the ACTU in 2010

There is an extra layer of cynicism to this token act of support as both the ACTU and MEAA are acutely aware of the fragile nature of Assange’s health whilst locked up in Belmarsh. Should  Assange die in a UK prison, or is dragged off in chains to a US gulag if the US extradition appeal succeeds, the trade union bureaucrats want to be able to at least point to a paper trail to avoid being accused of complicity in the crimes committed against Assange.

Since the ACTU motion was passed just three weeks prior to the Australian Labor Party conference, held on May 31st-April 1st, it was clearly part of an attempt by the MEAA to lobby the ALP to take a public stance in support of Assange.

This lobbying effort largely failed however, and only resulted in the adoption of a weak motion that failed to even call on the US Government to drop its appeal, or for the Australian Government to take action to bring Julian back to his home country. Like the ACTU Executive motion, it too was buried and only to come to light weeks after it passed when Labor backbencher, Julian Hill, mentioned the motion in an interview with Consortium News. The full motion is reproduced below:

Labor believes that the Australian government should be doing everything necessary to ensure that Mr Julian Assange is treated fairly and humanely, and welcomes the priority given to the health and welfare of Mr Assange in the UK Court’s decision. This includes ensuring that under no circumstances should Mr Assange—or any Australian—face the death penalty.

“The UK Court has found that Mr Assange should not be extradited to the USA given his ill-health, and Labor believes it is now time for this long drawn out case against Julian Assange to be brought to an end.”

It should come as no surprise that the ALP failed to take a stronger stance on Julian Assange. At the same conference, backed by all union delegates present, six motions were passed critisizing China for human rights abuses, demonstrating the ALP’s fidelity to the commitment of the two major parties of Australian capitalism to the US war drive against China.

In terms of the MEAA, whilst they deserve some credit for initiating the lobbying of the Federal Labor Party and the strongly worded motion at the ACTU executive, the strategy adopted reflects the unions efforts to keep the campaign for Assange’s freedom locked within the boundaries of parliamentary politics rather than mobilizing its members industrially, let alone in the working class more broadly. Despite Assange being a member of MEAA, of public statements from figures such as Marcus Strom, and of moving motions at the ACTU and the IFJ, the MEAA has done little to organise a campaign for Assange amongst its members. This tactic was again evidenced by its failure to publisize Paul Murphy’s motion passed by the ACTU.

The political signficance of the motion

 It is clear that the ACTU motion was only a token response to the mass support for Assange amongst Australian workers, and also that the response was buried because real public support for Assange would cut across the ALP and ACTU’s subordination to US imperialism. But does it therefore lack any real political significance?

I would argue that this motion can be used as a wedge by workers and by the Assange campaign against the ALP and the ACTU bureaucrats to advance the campaign to free Julian.  Whatever were the conflicted class tensions that led the ACTU to pass this motion and then to bury it, the fact remains that it is now the formal policy of the peak union body in Australia. And the fact remains that a motion has been passed that declares Assange is being persecuted by the US for exposing its war crimes, that he must be immediately released from Belmarsh, the US should drop its appeal, and that further actions against Assange are a threat to journalism. All of this is now the official policy of the ACTU and it means that any worker in Australia can use this motion to argue that the campaign to free Assange is the legitimate concern and work of all unions. It can and should be a spur for unionists to pass motions in their own workplaces not just endorsing the motion passed by the Executive, but calling for the mobilisation of workers in the campaign to defend Assange.

As the motion passed by the ACTU Executive states: “Continuing to prosecute him for this work constitutes an attack on journalists, journalism and the public right to know.” In other words the prosecution represents an attack on the democratic rights of the working class as a whole.

Assange held in glass cage during his political showtrial in London

The best response to the ACTU Executive’s passing a motion in support of Assange that it never wanted made public is to publicize it!  The best response to the ACTU passing a motion which includes condemnation of US war crimes, whilst  simultaneously falling in behind the war drive of US Imperialism, is to publicize it! When Social Democrats attempt to pay lip service to working class pressure from below, these token efforts can be weaponized and turned back against the class collaborationist bureaucracy. If the motion is used to advance a real worker orientated campaign for Assange, then the very bureaucrats who passed it will be forced to disown it thus exposing themselves as fakers, or they will be forced to reluctantly endorse their own words.

The job of a revolutionary socialist in the face of a motion like this is not to ignore it nor is to create illusions in the bureaucrats who passed it but to use it in a clear eyed fashion to advance the interests of the working class. In this case the words of the ACTU executive in support of the freedom of Julian Assange must be used to help build the campaign to free Julian Assange in the working class. 

Julian’s advice to campaigners- “If you are nurse, gather nurses, creat a bloc in the nurses union etc!

The ACTU motion is given added political significance Julian Assange himself has called for industrial organising in his defence. In early November 2019, one of the few letters from Julian Assange that has managed to break through the cruel information blockade inflicted by Belmarsh Prison emerged. The letter sent to a supporter in France encouraged workers to form “blocs” in their unions. It read:

Dear Anne-Marie, you ask what you can do to fight for my freedom? Use your strongest skills, friends, resources and associations. If you are a nurse, gather nurses, create a bloc in the nurses union, etc! JPA.’

Julian’s letter to a supporter in France calling for organising in union his defence

Following Julian’s advice the ACTU motion can be referenced and used a template in other unions. The war on journalism is the spearhead of what is really a class war and Julian Assange is a class war prisoner. Without access to journalism which tells the truth about the crimes of imperial power, without the fundamental right to know the truth, all the rights of the working class won in struggle over a century are existentially threatened. At root, the fight to free Julian Assange must be seen as an industrial struggle. Therefore, only the international working class organised in the fight to free Julian Assange has the social power to win his freedom 

Davey Heller

Davey Heller is a Trotskyist from Melbourne and long-time campaigner for Left-wing causes including anti-war, refugee rights, environmental protests and workers' struggles. He is a former secondary teacher who studied history at Monash University and currently works in the environmental field. You can follow him on Twitter at @socialist_davey

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