Pity the unsuspecting guests who simply wanted to check into their hotel room, enjoy an overpriced snack from the mini bar and have an early night.

History arrived at the East Hotel, a 10-minute walk from Parliament House in the nation’s capital, on Wednesday night. So did Assange-mania. As for Julian Assange himself, no one had a clue where he was. If they did, they weren’t telling.

Julian Assange’s wife Stella arrives at a press conference at the East Hotel in Canberra.

Julian Assange’s wife Stella arrives at a press conference at the East Hotel in Canberra.Credit: James Brickwood

Like iron filings to magnet, journalists and Assange admirers were drawn by a tweet to this trendy hotel ($300 a night, 4.5 stars on Google, a stylish martini and pizza bar downstairs). “Media Alert: WikiLeaks press conference 21.15 Australian Eastern time (GMT+10z) East Hotel Canberra, Kingston ACT, Australia,” WikiLeaks alerted the organisation’s 5.2 million followers on X, formerly known as Twitter, at 2.17pm.

Earlier in the day, the Northern Mariana Islands, where Assange pleaded guilty to a felony count of disseminating classified information, was the place to be. Now the circus had arrived at the East Hotel. Across the road, The Kingston Hotel – a popular down-to-earth pub known to locals only as “The Kingo” – was packed with rugby league nuts in blue and maroon jerseys watching the State of Origin.

At first, it seemed that Assange himself would speak at the press conference. By early evening it was clear he would not. Still, the crowd in the foyer kept swelling as reporters, rubberneckers and transparency warriors descended upon the site hoping to witness a man admired and detested by so many. Outside in the frigid cold, television reporters beamed back live crosses to their studios after hotfooting it from the Royal Australian Air Force Fairbairn base where Assange’s private jet had just landed. Standing on Australian soil for the first time in 15 years, he delivered a triumphant raised fist and embraced wife Stella.

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Among those gathered at the East were independent MP Zoe Daniel, Labor MP Josh Wilson, plus Greens senators David Shoebridge and Jordan Steele-John. Assange has attracted a sizeable share of right-wing supporters in recent times – including Trump loyalists like US congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Greene – but this was a decidedly left-leaning crowd, full of non-conformists distrustful of the media and disdainful of the military-industrial complex. Nasser Mashni, the president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, was there in a keffiyeh.

But where was Assange himself? Like in a Samuel Beckett play, the protagonist was off-stage, an enigma growing only more compelling by being invisible.

Journalist James Surowiecki famously wrote about the wisdom of crowds, but they can be stupid too. As the press conference time approached, a frenzied sense of anticipation built. No one wanted to miss the shot of Assange emerging from the elevator. A surge of excitement suddenly jolted through the crowd. Was it Assange? No, it was just a jolly young reporter from News Corp.

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