July 08, 2012
Detained ... Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor. Photo: AFP
Do all Australians in trouble abroad, including Julian Assange, get the same high-level government assistance afforded lawyer Melinda Taylor, who was detained in Libya?
Philip Ruddock, shadow cabinet secretary and former attorney-general
Australia recognises that not all legal systems are the same, but there is a need to be familiar with and observe the laws of any countries Australians may visit. The government ensures all Australians overseas, regardless of status or circumstances, are properly advised of their rights, entitlements and any available defences. The cases of Assange and Taylor are indicative of a differing response. Assange has been offered and provided with the same consular support other Australians could expect. It was, however, interesting to see the level of involvement of our Foreign Minister in the case of Taylor. It's hard to believe other Australians overseas could expect the same level of support. Would it be too cynical to suggest that the remarkably higher level of assistance provided to Taylor can be attributed to the desire of the minister to raise his profile? If so, he has lifted the bar for himself in future similar cases.
Robert Manne, professor of politics, La Trobe University
The Australian government has not given Julian Assange the kind of support it rightly gave Melinda Taylor and has given other Australians who have been involved in potential political problems. There is a likelihood that if Barack Obama is re-elected president, the United States will apply to one or another government for Assange's extradition, most probably to face charges under the Espionage Act. If Republican Mitt Romney is elected, the application for extradition is a near certainty. In such a situation, there are two things the Gillard government could do. It could make it clear that if Assange was able to return to his home country, Australia would unambiguously oppose the extradition request. And it could also make it clear that if the US applied to Britain or Sweden for Assange's extradition, Australia, the US's most dependable ally, would consider this an unfriendly act.
Australian embassy officials (and ministers for foreign affairs and former prime ministers) are always wasting time and money trying to bail out travellers carrying drugs into Indonesia or spying equipment into post-conflict zones where the rule of law might not be what it is back home. I suggest the Australian Passport Office and border officials at departure gates hand out leaflets that ask Australians travelling overseas: ''Are you stupid? If so, it might be better if you stayed at home.''
Tony Higgins, Fortitude Valley, Qld
If you have connections, manage to get the situation covered sufficiently by the media and if it might affect what is happening in the world, you get a good response. If not, the Australian government just provides lip service. Take Jock Palfreeman, the young man in Bulgaria who went to help someone being beaten up by football hooligans and then wasn't allowed evidence in court to prove his innocence. His prison cell is shared by six others, has a leaking roof and they must cook and defecate in the same area. It's minus 20 degrees in winter and plus 40 in summer. Prison guards stick the boot in whenever it suits for entertainment. Yet no Foreign Affairs official is working hard on this case. Australia used to represent a fair go for everyone. Not now.
Susan Davies, Granville
It is every country's duty to put the safety and security of its citizens first. No matter the circumstances, our security and liberty can be assured and upheld only by our government. Why, then, in the case of Julian Assange, does our government have the choice to turn its back on him? I get it - America doesn't like the guy, so let's kowtow to America. Our country should not have a choice in who it supports. Our country should support every Australian, especially those who are innocent until proven guilty.
Nikola Spadina, Paddington
Much has been made of perceptions that the Australian government should have done more to help Julian Assange overseas, but is that really fair? Assange is yet to be charged with any crime and faces only a warrant for sexual molestation filed by two disgruntled ex-girlfriends in Sweden. It's hard to see what that has to do with our foreign minister or attorney-general. Legal hypothetical scenarios of clandestine US extradition from Sweden cannot be defended by Australian diplomats, regardless of how real Assange supporters believe them to be. You can't rescue people from what might happen. Diplomacy is not a spectator sport and little is ever revealed about what may or may not go on behind the scenes on people's behalf. Expatriates have to take responsibility for their behaviour overseas and not expect a golden Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade parachute.
Sandra K. Eckersley, Marrickville
Thirty years ago, I was a tour leader doing overlands between London and Kathmandu. During my four years, I ran into many situations in which some assistance would have been appreciated. I was in Kabul in April 1978 to witness the first coup and several more times to witness the aftermath. I also cruised through Iran several times during its revolution. The few times we sought assistance from Australian missions, we found that we were on our own. These days seem to be different, with the media appearing to wind up the government to make it act or to get a good story. Travelling Australians put themselves into severe situations and demand to be looked after, but forget that the Australian government does not have the power to magically spirit them to its safe houses. Melinda Taylor received over-the-top assistance for a situation she appears to have placed herself in. If it is true that she and her colleagues went beyond their legal responsibility, they should be supported but face the consequences of their actions. Julian Assange believes transparency and accountability of actions are paramount for everyone but himself, which amazes me. He is suspected of committing a crime in Sweden, so he should face up to it and show the world he is innocent. I can understand he is frightened of falling into the clutches of the US, but that can happen almost everywhere. Australians should be aware that their actions while abroad can bite them on the bum and they cannot keep calling for somebody to bail them out.
Trevor Carroll, Ourimbah
If you are part of the establishment, no expense will be spared. Otherwise, you are on your own.
Christopher May, Balgowlah
The Australian government has a responsibility to assist its citizens in trouble overseas, but how dutifully it carries out that responsibility depends on a few easy-to-remember do's and don'ts. Being white, middle-class and younger than 40 is always a good move, particularly if you're photogenic. Remember, nothing tickles the tabloid headlines better than a government leaping to the defence of one of its own. Timing is also crucial. The chance of receiving any meaningful aid markedly increases each day towards a coming election. If you must get in trouble overseas, try to pick a generally ''evil'' area in which to be imprisoned. If the country is suffixed with ''stan'', or its people regularly appear as action-film bad guys, you're on the right track. Make sure you aren't apprehended by a major Australian trade partner. Having to have that conversation at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit would be awkward.
Dan Watson, Chippendale
Consistently, the government abandons Australians. The common call when I travelled in 1995 was: ''If you ever get caught, dump your Australian passport and claim to be English. They'll help you.'' My Irish passport was considered gold. The Irish government would go all out with its limited resources to get you home, often simply ringing the nearest Irish person to intervene before it became a political issue. When I got my Smart Traveller pack, there were numbers missing. During the New Orleans floods, the consulate could not be reached and the Australian government could not get into the area. Channels Seven, Nine and Ten seemed to have no problem getting buses in to bring Australians out. Ring them. I am now an Australian citizen but still travel on my Irish passport.
Pauline Bleach, Wolli Creek
The Australian government will support all its citizens who get in trouble overseas, unless they get in trouble with the United States or China.
Chris Cassidy, Matraville