"It was John Howard."
We laughed at the very idea. Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard happily left David Hicks to rot in Guantanamo Bay for over six years, and only negotiated an appalling deal for his release (Hicks had to plead guilty to bogus charges and promise not to contact the media with allegations of torture) because protesters just like us had campaigned vigorously for his release. But the former member of the Australian Liberal Party's Shadow Ministry appeared to be serious.
"I was there in the room!" insisted Mr Ciobo. This set the absurd tone for our discussion.
We were not there to talk about David Hicks. We were there, outside his office, holding a vigil in support of Bradley Manning, the young US soldier facing a Court Martial and possible death penalty for allegedly leaking secret US government files to WikiLeaks. We were there also in support of Julian Assange, the Australian founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, on whose behalf not a single member of the Australian parliamentary Coalition has spoken up. We asked Mr Ciobo to explain his party's silence on the matter.
Mr Ciobo said that in his own opinion, most Coalition MPs had a negative view of WikiLeaks, and probably thought Julian Assange was getting what he deserved. But in his own opinion, he confided, Julian was not all that bad.
We asked if Mr Ciobo knew the facts surrounding Julian Assange's extradition to Sweden, and he admitted that he didn't. He didn't think many others in his party knew much either, aside from Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop.
"Our view is that it's a government problem," he said.
It's difficult to have a meaningful debate with someone who doesn't know the facts, but it's totally unacceptable that a federally elected representative of the Australian public tolerates the witch-hunting of an innocent Australian citizen with so little basic curiosity.
We urged him to learn the facts, and he promised that he would read the material I had sent him previously (and have emailed him again) including Christine Assange's Talking Points.
We asked if he knew who Bradley Manning was. Mr Ciobo said he hadn't known who Manning was until we turned up in front of his office that day with a big sign. But he HAD heard about our little demonstration.
"I saw it on Twitter," he explained.
That was odd. There were only five of us at the demonstration, aside from my wife and kids (who dropped by to say hello). And as far as I can see, @SteveCiobo doesn't seem to follow any of us on Twitter. Perhaps Steve got some assistance from our ASIO friends (Ciobo apparently wanted to be an ASIO agent when he entered university).
Mr Ciobo mentioned that he was a trained lawyer. We asked how he felt about an Australian citizen being held under house arrest for over 500 days without charge. He shrugged it off.
"My opinion doesn't matter," he explained. What mattered, he said, was that the laws of other nations had to be respected and follow due course. We pointed out that this is not happening, and he again promised to inform himself.
We talked about the Collateral Murder video. Mr Ciobo explained that the USA had a more cavalier attitude to laws like the Geneva Convention than Australia, and their military's behaviour in places like Iraq and Afghanistan should not to be compared with our brave Diggers. Nevertheless, he insisted, we had to respect US interpretations of law. We pointed out that such respect is difficult when President Obama refuses to even declassify those interpretations.
Sadly, I was left with the strong impression that we cannot take Mr Ciobo at his word. A man who pretends that John Howard deserves thanks for rescuing David Hicks from Guantanamo Bay has already forfeited credibility. And this absurd level of debate characterizes the temper of the times in Australian politics. Facts are routinely ignored while phoney debates rage endlessly across the front pages.
Mr Ciobo, a former employee of PriceWaterhouseCoopers accountants, is no idiot. He has been described as a "lieutenant" of former Liberal Party leader, lawyer, and Goldman Sachs employee Malcolm Turnbull (who often talks about how he defended the MI5 author of Spycatcher but seldom mentions that he also defended media magnate Kerry "The Goanna" Packer against allegations of criminal political conspiracy). Let's hope Mr Ciobo is better informed next time we meet, and his party decides to speak up on behalf of WikiLeaks' hugely popular leader.
There are lessons in this small parable for supporters of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and Bradley Manning.
- Firstly, politicians are only human: we need to contact them, verify that they know the facts (if only to block claims of plausible deniability), and give them a documented opportunity to respond.
- Secondly, having exhausted the first lesson's possibilities, we should be under no illusions that any elected officials are going to speak up on Julian's, Bradley's, or WikiLeaks's behalf. If politicians and journalists will not speak up, then WE must become the voice that is lacking. We must become the media.
Finally, a warning is warranted.
If our politicians are not prepared to respond sincerely to genuine concerns for innocent individuals facing torture and imprisonment, they should not continue to expect civil levels of respect from us. Laws should apply equally to all citizens. If governments are not going to respect the law, they cannot ask citizens to do so. Is that really a future we wish to embrace?