Kevin Rudd chose the Easter week for some political populism on the subject of terrorism – something we’re more used to seeing from the government side.

The occasion was the visit of Yvonne Ridley, a British Muslim convert who was here to attend an Australian Islamic Conference at Melbourne University. Although she claims to have been quoted out of context, Ridley has in the past expressed sympathy with suicide bombings.

The opposition leader said it was the government’s responsibility to shield us from such views: “I think Mr Howard’s Government has some explaining to do as to how this person was allowed into Australia”.

His shadow immigration minister Tony Burke, who in the past has eloquently supported the free movement of peoples, asked how “somebody with those views could possibly pass the character test” for an Australian visa.

Rudd was unable to point to any actual terrorist activity that Ridley was associated with; this seemed a pure case of condemning someone on the basis of their opinions – or “attitude”, as he put it.

There’s some sense to a “character” test for immigrants to Australia, although no doubt the one we have is applied capriciously. But for people on temporary visas, why should it matter what views they hold? Is it really the government’s job to protect Australia from unpleasant opinions?

Immigration minister Kevin Andrews, no doubt relishing his unfamiliar role as a defender of free speech, had it exactly right when he said, “There is a vast distinction between allowing somebody into Australia whose views you may not like, and somebody who is a threat to national security.”

“Security” grounds, of course, can be manipulated to give pretty much whatever result you want, and in the past the government’s line has been rather less permissive, keeping out such would-be visitors as Holocaust denier David Irving and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

So while Rudd must enjoy exposing Coalition hypocrisy, it’s mysterious why he would try to position Labor as the anti-free speech party – the government would seem to have that territory locked up.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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