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Assange: the pasty-faced Aussie icon

While Oprah gushed, locals pondered the fate of a new and unusual national celebrity. PM stumbles on Wikileaks fallout. Ocean tragedy revives asylum debate. An internet plan to beat the world. Old rivals square off in Ashes series.

Julian Assange



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When American talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey descended on Australia to tape a batch of shows, she summoned a roster of famous local celebrities as her key guests. Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Olivia Newton-John, even Prime Minister Julia Gillard  - the usual Aussie suspects. But Australia’s most unusual suspect was nowhere to be seen.


While Winfrey was busy presenting a glossy version of the sunny, seductive nation the world has come to know, Julian Assange was becoming the most-talked-about Australian in the world by showing off a different and more complex face of the local character. He is, perhaps, Australia’s very first pasty-faced and cerebral global icon. And as he has done around the world in recent weeks, Assange – who he is, where he comes from and what he’s done – dominated the national conversation here. He has given politicians heartburn. Rocked the diplomatic corps. And prompted a debate about just how far a government should go to look after a citizen whose individual plight sits uncomfortably with the demand of realpolitik.

PM Gillard was not alone among world leaders in wondering what on earth to do about Assange and his website WikiLeaks. But she was the only one who had to factor in the fact that a man some critics want assassinated was also an Australian in trouble abroad. Gillard tied herself in knots, at first railing against the site’s secret cable dump as “illegal,” putting herself squarely on the side of Australia’s key international ally in Washington. She downgraded that assessment to “"grossly irresponsible" when federal police declared Assange had broken no laws. She was assailed from all sides, with her most vociferous critics insisting the PM come out forcefully in defence of freedom of speech, and of the rights of one of her citizens.

Gillard wasn’t the only politician squirming in Canberra. Her predecessor as PM, Kevin Rudd, was the main focus of a Wikileaks dump of cables relating specifically to Australia. Thus Australians learned precisely how shaky Rudd’s prime ministership had been in American eyes. They learned what Rudd told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about China. And found out that a key powerbroker in the ruling Labor Party here was a key source for the U.S. embassy.

Rudd shrugged it all off. Meanwhile, the Australian media revelled in the unusual experience of the world’s most notorious wiki-master being a local lad with a curious personal background. He grew up in paradise; took up computer hacking as a teenager; fathered a son when he was 18; launched WikiLeaks when he was 36.

In all, he’d have made a fascinating guest for Winfrey on her Down Under visit, but the TV chatterbox was unusually quiet when the local media asked her views. She preferred to play it safe. As did Julia Gillard, who put the issue to one side to make a public appearance with the star. It was left to Assange’s mother Christine to make the point that of the two big stories dominating the media in December, only one really mattered, and that was the fate of her jailed son. The several thousand Winfrey fans who crammed the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House on December 14 seemed less concerned with weighty matters of state.

It’s summer here, after all, not normally a time for complex debates and furrowed brows. But reality can intrude even on the sultry pre-Christmas celebrations of this laid-back land. When a boat full of asylum seekers was swept onto rocks on Christmas Island on December 15, it seemed to stun the country into silence. But not for long: Refugee policy here is far too contentious and inflammatory an issue for that. It has been for many years, and there is so sign this latest tragedy — in which an estimated 50 people were killed — will lower the temperature of the debate.

Money: There’s still a lot of talk about stimulus spending in world capitals, but Australia have just been shown the fine detail on a government outlay that dwarfs every other infrastructure project in its history. The National Broadband Network is a $36 billion plan that will link every home and business in the land to a high-speed fiber, wireless and satellite network the government says will give Australians some of the highest connection speeds in the world. It’s either a revolution — or an enormous gamble and potential waste of money, depending on your viewpoint. And as he unveiled the “business plan” underpinning the network, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy painted it as an economic necessity, quoting an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report that found broadband prices were higher here than in 26 other developed nations.

Elsewhere: The non-converted are well advised to not even try to understand the mysteries and magic of Test cricket, especially as it is played between England and Australia in the bi-annual, five-match clash known as the Ashes. This is sport-as-war — the game’s most treasured and fiercely fought contest, with a history that runs alongside the growth of the relationship between the two countries, one a former empire, the other a colonial upstart. Nothing satisfies the Australian psyche as much as beating the English and in recent years the Aussies have had the better of the Ashes contests. So it was a shock to local pride when the visiting Poms cruised to a crushing victory in the first Test of the current series. But a resurgent Australia stormed back to slap the English back into place at the second Test. The series now stand at 1-1, with a post-Christmas battle in Melbourne now likely to break attendance records as crowds flock to revel in the rivalry. But the fact remains: if you weren’t raised with it Test cricket can be hard to understand. Example: matches are played over five full days and quite often end in a draw. That baffles the uninitiated; just ask the American woman whose Twitter nickname inadvertently turned her into a cricket celebrity Down Under.