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Thursday, 20 August 2009
Page: 8547

Ms SAFFIN (2:42 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Would the minister please outline Australia’s approach to the admission of foreign citizens, and are there any challenges to this approach?

Mr STEPHEN SMITH (Minister for Foreign Affairs) —I thank the member for her question. The question goes to the rigour and the sanctity of Australia’s longstanding immigration procedures and processes. When people want to visit Australia—non-Australian citizens—they of course apply for a visa of some description. There are a range of assessments that are done in the course of that. For example, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship make assessments in respect of character. Our security organisations make assessments in respect of security. And from time to time under our arrangements it is open for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to make assessments with respect to foreign policy matters and foreign policy implications. Ultimately, as a result of that law, that practice and our longstanding procedures, from time to time it falls to the Minister for Foreign Affairs to make a judgment as to whether the issuing of a visa would be appropriate or not as the case may be.

This, of course, is precisely the process which I followed in the recent issuing of a visa to the Uygur leader Rebiya Kadeer—a matter of some controversy and a matter of remarks in the chamber this week. I have detailed to the House that prior to the issuing of the visa, and prior to my decision to not disturb our longstanding arrangements and to not disturb the normal processes of the issuing of a visa to her, I received representations, and Australia received representations, from the Chinese authorities at pretty much every level, including from my own counterpart. The representation from China was that this would not be something which China would welcome, and China asserted that Rebiya Kadeer was a terrorist. After exhaustive assessment, I came to the conclusion that I should not disturb the visa arrangements and the visa was granted. As I said to the House earlier this week, China responded to that by indicating it was most unhappy, and I have detailed to the House a number of measures which China has taken in response to that, which of course Australia regrets.

The reason why we issued a visa and the reason why we did not disturb that is that we have values and virtues of long standing. We understand, respect and recognise freedom of speech. We value the capacity of someone to come to our country and say things even if we do not agree with them, and a range of things which Ms Kadeer said, including arguing that the western provinces should be under separate autonomy, is not something that the Australian government agrees with. We have a longstanding position to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the western provinces so far as China is concerned and, as I have indicated to the Chinese authorities, just because someone comes here does not mean that Australia agrees with them. But it is part of our system—our values and virtues—that people have the right to exercise a view.

Yesterday in the House, in response to a question, I said to the shadow minister for foreign affairs, and the Leader of the Opposition as well, that I was a bit unclear as to what the Liberal Party’s position on the issuing of the visa to Rebiya Kadeer was. I said I was just a bit unsure as to whether they supported it or opposed it. That was in part confirmed by the press release which the shadow minister put out yesterday, 19 August, and I quote:

“Most recently, the Rudd Government failed to work constructively with China regarding the visit to Australia of Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer.”

I said to myself, ‘Work constructively? I am not quite sure what that means. I listened to the representations of the Chinese authorities. I made a decision. And before that decision was made public, as I indicated to the House, I let the Chinese authorities know.’ So I was a bit unsure as to what working constructively meant. Maybe this meant that the Liberal Party did not agree with the government’s decision and the visa should have been refused? I was much edified this morning when I saw the transcript from the shadow minister’s doorstop at Parliament House today, 20 August. In commenting on the China-Australia relationship, she said, ‘There was the bungling of the handling of the visa to the Uygur leader.’ When you decide as a nation state to issue a visa you do one of two things: you either grant it or you refuse it. You either say yes or you say no. There is only one way you can bungle the issuing of a visa and that is if someone else forms the view that the visa should not have been issued. I am just assuming, because of what the shadow minister has said and because of her and the Leader of the Opposition’s deafening silence on this issue until the last couple of days, that the Liberal Party does not and did not support the granting of the visa to Rebiya Kadeer. So the Liberal Party does not believe in freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

Maybe that is just reading too much into it? Maybe there is a simpler explanation: incompetence and trying to take craven domestic political advantage. Maybe it is just incompetence. Maybe it is speaking before you think. Or maybe it is doing what I said yesterday the Leader of the Opposition had done: broken the longstanding tradition of political parties on both sides of this House of a bipartisan approach to the Australia-China relationship? Unlike the Leader of the Opposition, when we were in opposition for 12 years we did not seek to take domestic political advantage of our relationship with China. Unlike the Leader of the Opposition and unlike the shadow minister, we do not take a naive, crass, simplistic, miscalculated, misjudged view of China. So it is there for all to see: the shadow minister on the doors today saying that, when the Australian government issued a visa to Rebiya Kadeer, that was a bungle. It was a bungle because, according to the Liberal Party, the visa should not have been granted. So either they do not believe in freedom of speech in accordance with our longstanding traditions or they are trying to take craven political advantage out of an important relationship.

On the other hand, the government takes a long-term view of our relationship with China. In the last 24 hours we have seen the largest trade deal between Australia and China in our nation’s history. We also have seen a range of difficulties associated with the relationship, crystallising with the issuing by the government of a visa to Rebiya Kadeer. And that was done because it was the right thing to do. If the Liberal Party had been in government at the time it is quite clear that the Liberal Party would not have issued that visa to Rebiya Kadeer. That would not have been in our nation’s interest and it would not have been in the long-term interests of the relationship between Australia and China.