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Thursday, 29 November 2012
Page: 10404

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (22:39): I was actually at the back of the chamber, making a phone call to my office when that unseemly reference was made to where Senator Whish-Wilson thought I was. Having said that, this is an important issue. There is no question that Malaysia and Australia have a long and positive history. Senator Brandis outlined the fact that Malayan and Australian troops fought together in World War II, Australian troops fought against the Malaysian communist insurgency in the 1950s and our former Governor-General Sir William McKell was one of the four jurists that helped draft Malaysia's constitution.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship estimates that as of June 2012 there were approximately 116,000 Malaysian-born people living in Australia. Further, approximately 300,000 Malaysians in total have undertaken courses in Australian educational institutions. That is an unambiguously good thing. The establishment of a free trade agreement between these two close friends is in theory something we should welcome, but I believe we need to consider other issues in the context of this free trade agreement.

In April this year I was in Malaysia as part of the fact-finding mission of an international observers group on Malaysia's electoral system. The group consisted of representatives from India, Germany, Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan and Australia and met with representatives of the Malaysian government, the election commission, the ruling coalition, the opposition and the clean elections movement led by the group Bersih, which we met with a co-founder, Ambiga Sreenevasan, who was here in Australia not so long ago. We invited her to speak to MPs about the parlous state of Malaysian democracy and the impending elections that could be held at virtually any time between now and April of next year.

The group's final report raised a number of serious concerns, including the lack of free and fair access to the media and widespread gerrymandering. To give an example, there are some seats controlled by the government with as few as 10,000 voters and seats controlled by the opposition with over 100,000 voters. The gerrymander is extraordinary. There is also the issue of vilification and slander of candidates. There is also the potential for fraud in the verification of voters. The potential for fraud is not just with the electoral roles but also with the postal voting system. The group also met with a retired senior military officer who basically pointed out that, when Malaysian troops are voting, they can effectively be told how to vote. These are important issues.

I have previously raised these concerns and more in this place. When I was most recently in Kuala Lumpur and met with the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, he provided me with a handwritten note: a personal plea to the foreign minister, Senator Bob Carr. That plea was not for intervention, as it has been characterised in the media, but for Australia, as a longstanding friend of Malaysia and one of the best friends Malaysia has, to take an interest in the Malaysian elections. There is a real fear of electoral fraud.

On AM with Tony Eastley on 21 November—just last week—Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader, was asked:

You have fears that the election will be fraudulent and that it won't reflect the will of the Malaysian people. What evidence do you have to back this?

Anwar Ibrahim said:

We have produced and submitted specific evidence based on the electoral role prepared by the election commission where we showed a few hundred thousand people who are ineligible to vote, not allowed to vote, or some who are not eligible, who are 12 years old or two years old, in the electoral list.

Yesterday the election commission in a private discussion with the members of parliament admitted they were at fault.

Tony Eastley asked:

These voter inconsistencies you mention - false names, underage voters and ghost voters - who is behind this alleged rigging?

ANWAR IBRAHIM: Well election commission is supposed to be independent. But right now of course they, in their statement, in their public announcement, seem to represent the ruling UMNO party.

That gives you an idea of what is at stake. This is one of our closest neighbours, our closest friends, that we are seeking to enter into a free trade agreement with. The opposition leader there as well as the Bersih movement, which I believe has an impeccable reputation for being impartial in these matters, has raised very serious concerns about the Malaysian election system. The response of the foreign minister, Senator Bob Carr, in relation to Mr Ibrahim's concerns, his pleas for assistance, can be found in an interview on the World Today program on 21 November in an interview by Sabra Lane. I think it is fair to say that the response has been unfortunately lauded, and misleadingly lauded, in the Malaysian media controlled by the ruling coalition.

There is nothing to prevent Australia from taking an active interest in the Malaysian elections—not to interfere but to send an observer group. In the lead-up to those critical elections for Malaysia's democracy, there is a very real concern that those elections will be fixed, that they will not be free and fair. I question why the government is interested in engaging in free trade with Malaysia, which can bring significant benefits to both countries, but is not interested in promoting democracy in Malaysia.

It is our 10th-largest trading partner, and trade between the two nations is valued at $16 billion in 2011. There is no question that Malaysia is an important trading partner. But we must be listening to all sides of Malaysian politics. As a democratic nation and a friend of Malaysia, we have a positive role to play—not to interfere but to ensure that elections in Malaysia are free and fair.

I believe that the passage of this free trade agreement should be, must be conditional on our support of free and fair elections in Malaysia. What has been raised by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim both in our national media and in his note to Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr indicates a pressing case for Australia to play a constructive role as a friend of Malaysia to ensure that the upcoming Malaysian national elections are free and fair.