In denying Malaysian lawyer and political activist Haris Ibrahim a visa to Australia signifies a major and disturbing change in Australian foreign policy, says Murray Hunter.
The Malaysian political activist and lawyer Haris Ibrahim was refused a visa to enter Australia by the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur indicates a possible new attitude on the part of the Abbott Government towards human rights and freedom of expression in South-East Asia.
Haris Ibrahim is the founder of ABU or Anything But UMNO, referring to the main political party in the ruling coalition. He along with two opposition members of parliament has been charged with sedition over remarks made at a May 13th forum about the recent election in Malaysia, a law almost defunct in Australian jurisprudence.
Haris Ibrahim was scheduled to speak to academics at the Australian National University in Canberra on 29th September. He was also scheduled to visit Sydney on private business and attend another speaking engagement in Melbourne.
It is standard practice for Australian Immigration not to divulge the reasons for rejecting any application for an Australian visa, however speculation from an unnamed source from the organisation Global Bersih, a body concerned about free and fair elections in Malaysia, cites the Australian Government belief that Haris Ibrahim 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 Holocaust denying historian David Irving's a few years ago. David Irving's proposed visit was strongly opposed by the Australian Jewish community on the grounds that his public views would give merit to his views. 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, this decision was unanimously overturned on the principal of allowing "free speech". In this case, the then Labor immigration minister Gerry Hand personally made the decision to deny Irving a visa, but his decision was faulted on procedure — that is, that 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: for whom does Haris Ibrahim's proposed visit to Australia pose a 'high risk'?
Australia does not have a formal extradition treaty with Malaysia and, yes, it could be deemed that Haris Ibrahim is a 'risk', if it was his intention to flee Malaysia. However Haris Ibrahim was actually away from Malaysia at the time he was informed of the visa decision, and has freedom of entry and exit from Malaysia without any interference by the local authorities there. There is no risk of violence or of inciting violence in the Haris case and it appears the only risk on Australian territory is about what Haris Ibrahim might actually say that could be deemed sensitive to the Malaysian Government.
More likely, this visa decision in the first few days of the new Abbott administration more rightly indicates the government's 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 South-East Asian governments in the area of human rights and civil liberties, in the interests of good government to government relationships. It seems the new Abbott government did not want to rock the boat with Kuala Lumpur in these early days of the new administration.
This decision comes very quickly after the Australian Government's remarks on asylum seeker policy, which has riled Jakarta.
The Haris Ibrahim decision shows that the Abbott Government will be pragmatic rather than principled on general foreign policy issues. This is in stark contrast to the important speech made in Lhasa just a week before the Federal election by the Australian Ambassador to China, Frances Adamson, which affirmed the Australian Government's concerns about human rights in Tibet.
There is a chance that the decision was made by immigration officials without reference to the minister during this transition period of government in Australia. However, this is very 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 the Australian Government is implicitly supporting the use of a judicial system for political ends in denying Haris Ibrahim a 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, however many voters will be very surprised by this apparently new policy stance.