An unusual combination of the Greens, Coalition backbenchers, Tony Abbott, Cory Bernardi and Labor has killed the government’s desperate effort to push through an extradition agreement with China. This morning the government called Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, to tell her the treaty would not be placed before parliament for ratification, after Labor’s shadow cabinet last night decided to oppose it. But the government may have inflicted terminal damage to the treaty itself with some cack-handed media management along the way.

The issue of a treaty to send people to one of the world’s most brutal “justice” systems, which convicts more than 99% of defendants and executes thousands of people every year, first emerged in 2014. A treaty had actually been agreed between Australia and China by the Howard government in 2007, but never placed before parliament. In 2014, it was clear that an extradition treaty was a key demand from the Chinese for a free trade agreement. The Abbott government, which didn’t mind what was in such agreements as long as it could claim to have signed one, was eager to cooperate.

According to a senior Chinese official, the Abbott government promised China in 2014 it “would speed up the ratification process” — which makes Abbott’s sudden about-face on the issue, revealed today via his preferred commentator, at best, extraordinarily cynical.

Now-independent Senator Cory Bernardi had also flagged his opposition and said he would seek to disallow it, while the Greens have always been opposed to the treaty. Several Coalition backbenchers, including former minister Eric Abetz and South Australian senator David Fawcett, had also signalled they might be willing to cross the floor to vote against ratification.

Fawcett, crucially, is chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of the Joint Treaties Committee, and a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee; his willingness to cross the floor signaled profound concerns from a respected and informed member of the government.

[China’s political fox hunt calls for some shirt-front diplomacy]

The embarrassing withdrawal is also partly the result of another extraordinarily ham-fisted piece of strategising from the government. Overnight, someone in either the Prime Minister’s Office or Julie Bishop’s office briefed News Corp journalists and also told Labor that the Chinese had made clear Australians currently held in China — such as James Packer’s Crown employees, or Sydney academic Chongyi Feng — would not be released unless the treaty was signed.

Not merely was it entirely self-contradictory — to claim that the extradition treaty was “safe” while simultaneously advertising China’s brazen contempt for the rule of law — but it also immediately got the backs up of MPs, both Labor and Coalition. If indeed Chinese officials had attempted to bully Australia into signing the treaty by using Australians as hostages, the Turnbull government looks weak and cowardly for giving in to the Chinese. It’s hard to think of a better way to kill the treaty than to link it to Beijing’s bullying.

With the treaty now dead for, probably, years to come, the question is whether the claims about China’s attempt to bully Australia are true, and if so why the Turnbull government caved in to them. Condemning them may not have made for a pleasant sequel to the visit by Premier Li Keqiang, who undoubtedly pushed for rapid ratification while here, but the Chinese are the ones who banned Chongyi Feng from leaving while Li Keqiang was still in Australia. Beijing’s contempt for the rule of law, and for Australian sensibilities, couldn’t be clearer.

[A China free trade agreement — worth railroading a few crooks for?]

Peter Fray

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