To catch a senator

Independent senator Nick Xenophon is apparently still in detention in Malaysia, but will be deported back to Australia later tonight, having been detained – allegedly as a “security risk” – upon his arrival there this morning.

Xenophon, together with three other MPs (who have now cancelled their plans), was travelling to Malaysia to meet with both government and opposition figures in advance of Malaysia’s general election, expected to be held within the next couple of months.

Malaysia is not really used to the idea of competitive elections. The ruling National Front has never been defeated, but the last election, in 2008, saw the opposition record its best result in almost 50 years, reducing the government to less than two-thirds of the seats – despite various systematic disadvantages suffered by the opposition (read Freedom House’s scathing report).

So for the government of prime minister Najib Razak, the detention of Xenophon is a spectacular own goal. It will draw the world’s attention to the problems of Malaysia’s electoral system and put pressure on him to make good on his promises of greater fairness and transparency. But for Najib, democratisation is a big risk: most observers think that if free and fair elections were ever held, the National Front would be swept from power.

Foreign minister Bob Carr has condemned Xenophon’s detention, but his remarks – he described it as “a surprising and disappointing act” – seemed to lack the depth of outrage one would expect at such treatment of a fellow-parliamentarian by a friendly nation. Granted, it’s his job to be diplomatic, but one fears that Australia is continuing its long history of failure to stand up to the dictatorial tendencies of its neighbors.

The Greens, not surprisingly, took the opportunity to claim vindication in their opposition to the “Malaysian solution” for asylum seekers: if the Malaysian government can’t be trusted to treat a senator properly, what chance for helpless boat people?

The affair also draws attention to an occupational hazard for critics of foreign governments: that it can restrict a person’s travel options. Xenophon has been a regular visitor to Malaysia and has, as he puts it, “made statements about the state of Malaysian democracy previously.” This time, evidently, he has exhausted the government’s patience, and it has exercised its undoubted right to refuse him entry.

Generally these sort of cases would not unfold in such a dramatic fashion. Most of the countries that are likely to be the subject of (and to take offence at) criticism of their democratic or human rights credentials are also places that require Australians to apply for a visa. Outspoken critics simply don’t get a visa in the first place.

It’s a relatively small group of countries that have an unfriendly attitude to critics but also allow visa-free travel, so the critic may simply arrive on a plane, as did Senator Xenophon, only to find at the airport that their name is on a “watch list”.

I’m sure I don’t have anything like Xenophon’s notoriety, but given some of the things I’ve written on international politics there are countries that I would not fly to without at least having at the back of my mind a contingency plan for what to do if denied entry. (It hasn’t happened so far.)

Sadly, many critics have found that our government puts a higher priority on friendly relations with authoritarian states than on defending its own citizens’ freedom of speech. But the fact that a sitting senator can get the same treatment might open a few peoples’ eyes: not just to dodgy electoral practices in Malaysia, but to the need to resist attempts to stifle criticism.

2 thoughts on “To catch a senator

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