Strange. Going by their recent pronouncements on China and human rights, Bob Brown and Donald Rumsfeld have more in common than they might care to know. Our foreign minister Alexander Downer says he won’t publicly canvass the facts of the case of defecting Chinese diplomat Chen Yonglin.

Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, says Downer has to explain if he has made a decision about Chen’s application for territorial or political asylum.

“If Mr Downer has taken that decision, which Minister Vanstone says he has, to deny Mr Chen territorial asylum, then surely Mr Downer’s got a responsibility to tell Australians what his grounds were,” he said yesterday. And if the government won’t speak, others will. What does Family First Senator elect Steve Fielding feel about sending a man back to a regime that practises forced abortion?

More is at stake here than just one issue. The government might have a majority in the Senate come 1 July – but only just. One stray backbencher and there’s trouble. Has Amanda Vanstone’s mishandling of the immigration portfolio so utterly paralysed the government that it cannot respond on this issue?

That silence might be deadly to its chances of getting all its legislation through the Senate.