Australia's U-turn on human rights?

Australia's Sept. 20 refusal to grant the Malaysian political activist and lawyer Haris Ibrahim a temporary visa may indicate a new attitude on the part of the Abbott government to go out of its way to placate Southeast Asian governments on human rights and civil liberties in the interests of government-to-government relationships.

Haris was turned down for a visa by the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur although he was scheduled to speak to academics at the Australian National University in Canberra on Sept. 29. He was also scheduled to visit Sydney on private business and to attend another speaking engagement in Melbourne.

Haris is the founder of ABU or Anything But UMNO, a reference to the main political party in the ruling coalition. He along with two opposition members of parliament have been charged with sedition over remarks made at a May 13 forum about the recent election in Malaysia, a law almost defunct in Australian jurisprudence and much of the rest of the world.

It is standard practice for Australian Immigration not to divulge the reasons for rejecting any application for an Australian visa, although speculation from an unnamed source from the organization Global Bersih, a body concerned about free and fair elections in Malaysia cites an Australian government belief that Haris poses a "high risk" if he is allowed to enter Australia, as many issues he may bring up could be very sensitive to the Malaysian government.

This case shares some parallels with the case of the British historian and holocaust denier David Irving a few years ago. Irving holds strong dissident views about the holocaust and his proposed visit was strongly opposed by the Australian Jewish community on the grounds that allowing him to air his views in public would give merit to them. Ironically their opposition gave Irving a high public profile for a lecture tour that may have otherwise been very low-key. Australian Immigration denied him a visa but upon challenge in the High Court, the decision was unanimously overturned on the principal of allowing "free speech". In this case the then-minister Gary Hand personally made the decision to deny Irving a visa, but his decision was faulted on procedure, i.e., It was not likely Irving would instigate direct violence, but other groups in Australia opposed to his views would more likely be the culprits, making a legal difference.

What is important here is that the notion of free speech was upheld by the highest court in the land in the case of applications for visas to enter Australia. Thus it could be asked: does Haris' proposed visit to Australia pose a "high risk," and to whom?

Australia does not have a formal extradition treaty with Malaysia and it could be deemed that Haris is a 'risk', if his intention is to flee Malaysia. However Haris was actually away from Malaysia at the time he was informed of the visa decision, and has freedom of entry and exit to and from Malaysia without interference by the local authorities. There is no risk of violence or of inciting violence in the case, and it appears the only risk on Australian territory is that Haris Ibrahim might actually say something that could be deemed sensitive to the Malaysian government.

More likely, this visa decision in the first few days of the new Abbott administration indicates a new government attitude and policy in action towards governments in the region. Based on this decision, what we may be likely to see during this administration is the government going out of its way to placate Southeast Asian governments in the area of human rights and civil liberties.

The new Abbott government did not want to rock the boat with Kuala Lumpur in these early days. This decision comes very quickly after the Australian government's remarks on asylum seeker policy, which have riled Jakarta.

The Haris decision shows that the Abbott government will be pragmatic rather than principled on general foreign policy issues. This is in stark contrast to an important speech by the Australian Ambassador to China Frances Adamson affirming Australian concerns about human rights in Tibet in Lhasa just a week before the federal election.

There is a chance that the decision was made by immigration officials without reference to the minister during this transition period. But that is unlikely unless the department is incompetent because of the far-reaching sensitivity of this issue. If the policy assumptions behind the decision are found to be valid, then we may have witnessed a major turn in Australian foreign policy, where the encouragement of free expression and ideas within the Asian region is no longer encouraged.

There is also risk that Canberra is implicitly supporting the use of the judicial system for political ends in denying the visa, something that should be abhorrent to those who believe in equality under the law and against the use of any legal system for persecution of citizens. At best this was a poor decision, at worst this signifies a massive change in foreign policy.

Foreign policy was not an issue widely debated during Australia's recent election, although many voters will be very surprised with this new policy stance.