The past few years have been so volatile in federal politics it is easy to forget the moment Australia stumbled toward a deal with China it would have deeply regretted.
Years of work went into an extradition treaty between Australia and China that came dangerously close to reality during the toxic transition from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister.
It is astonishing that Australia once contemplated the sort of law that has ignited protests in Hong Kong, triggered police brutality and prompted mainland Chinese forces to assemble at the border to potentially crush dissent.
So there is a connection between what is happening in Hong Kong today and what has occurred in Australia’s Federal Parliament over the past few years.
In hindsight, the Australian treaty was a turning point when politicians from all sides turned to Beijing and said: “No.” That moment, in March 2017, marked a more assertive response to China and was followed by foreign interference laws and a ban on Chinese company Huawei.
One lesson stands out. The shift in Australian policy only came when individual members of Parliament rose up and forced the change.
China pressed for the extradition treaty so firmly, over so many years, that the Department of Foreign Affairs recommended it be signed and two ministers, Julie Bishop and Michael Keenan, guided it towards formal approval.
With the government riven by the conflict between Abbott and Turnbull, the extradition treaty proceeded smoothly through the treaties committee of Parliament. While Abbott never approved it, he never rejected it either. When Turnbull took over, he appeared willing to approve it.
Then the backbench intervened. On Monday, March 27, 2017, the government was forced to listen to Liberal and Nationals MPs who, like members of the Labor caucus, believed they could not in good conscience back the deal. This gave support to Cory Bernardi, who had quit the Liberal Party one month earlier and wanted to disallow the treaty.
The Liberals who spoke up against the treaty in that meeting included Andrew Hastie, James Paterson, Dean Smith, Tim Wilson and Trent Zimmerman. Federal cabinet discussed their concerns that night. The response? Ministers called some of the MPs the next day to urge them to relent.
In other words, the government’s first response was to try to bend the backbench to its will. Only when the Labor caucus spoke up against treaty, and Bill Shorten phoned Turnbull to tell him this, did the government abandon the plan. (There is no space here for the way Abbott took aim at Turnbull from the sidelines).
These events rankle Liberal MPs to this day. Even now, when Hastie criticises Chinese President Xi Jinping, ministers mutter about the need for backbenchers to be careful about their contributions. But what if backbenchers had stayed silent in March 2017?
The next test is likely to be Australia’s free trade agreement with Hong Kong, which was signed in March and is meant to be ratified in October. The treaties committee will have to decide whether to approve a trade deal with a government that is mobilising police against its own people.
The chair of the treaties committee, Dave Sharma, believes the trade agreement would emphasise Hong Kong’s special status (what is known as “one country, two systems”) but says he is mindful of concerns about the protests.
The deputy chair, Labor MP Peter Khalil, believes the trade deal should not be ratified while the protests continue.
Why should Australian politicians stay silent? When Hong Kong activist and pop star Denise Ho visited Sydney and Melbourne this week, she warned against the “white terror” of Beijing in the way it steadily dismantled personal freedoms.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been forced to abandon the extradition law but this only addresses one of the five demands from an organic protest movement that has no single leader and decides its tactics by vote on social media.
The protesters also want an independent inquiry into the police, an amnesty for those arrested, an end to the government’s description of protests as “riots” and the transition to genuine democracy with universal suffrage.
Millions of Hong Kongers believe those goals are worth fighting for. A test will come soon enough when Australian politicians must decide whether to help.
Now to another matter. The owner of this newspaper, Nine Entertainment, has been rightly flayed for its foolish decision to host a fundraiser for the Liberal Party. In one night of cosiness with the Morrison government it exposed its journalists to claims of bias and provided ammunition to those who have lost trust in the media, right at a time when the media should do all it can to keep that trust.
The fundraiser was a monumental blunder that hurt the company and undermined its independent journalists. Nine’s chief executive, Hugh Marks, was right to admit the mistake. It should never happen again.
I can write this because I am covered by a charter of editorial independence that keeps management away from my work. I write as I see fit, as do my colleagues. That is why I am proud to work for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and proud to work with my fellow journalists at Nine.
By David Crowe