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Free trade should follow fair elections

The Age, Melbourne

Free trade should follow fair elections

12 January 2013

By Nick Xenophon

Should Australia be signing up, and giving the gift of a Free Trade Agreement with countries that are manifestly undemocratic and authoritarian?

That is a question that needs to be raised as Australia negotiates the terms for trade deals with China and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

But it is also a question that should have been asked by the Australian government on May 22 last year when Trade Minister Craig Emerson signed a trade agreement with Malaysia, which came into force just this year.

In late April 2012 - just three weeks before the signing ceremony - I was part of an International Observer Group in Kuala Lumpur to scrutinise the state of Malaysia’s democracy.

The delegates from Australia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Germany all came to the same conclusion in their reports: the Malaysian electoral system is prone to widespread rorting and fraud, the media is not free, and intimidation of opponents is widespread.

In effect the democratic will of Malaysians in all likelihood will be crushed in the forthcoming elections, and the ruling coalition will slide into a seventh decade of power.

With a federal poll in Malaysia due by April, Australia’s willingness to sign a free-trade deal while turning a blind eye to a seriously corrupted electoral system is surprising given our track record of supporting democracy in the region and beyond.

In recent years successive Australian governments have been outspoken about the lack of democracy in Burma, playing a leadership role in encouraging the slow but steady progress of reform.

Australia even sent official observers to Georgia’s November elections. But Malaysia seems to be excised from the Australian government’s conscience.

Could the legally thwarted, but still seemingly dormant, ’’people swap’’ deal between Australia and Malaysia be a key reason? And in turn, what role did asylum-seeker policies have in influencing the pace and conclusion of the Malaysia-Australia trade deal?

We may never precisely know. But we do know there is a curious double standard on the part of the Gillard government on speaking out on the precarious state of democracy in Malaysia and the implications it could have on Australia and the entire region.

When the trade deal came up for parliamentary approval last November, I suggested that any bill be conditional on Australia requesting free and fair elections in Malaysia.

Just a few weeks earlier, Australian MPs had heard from Ambiga Sreenevasan - the co-founder of Bersih, the clean elections movement of Malaysia. A lawyer and former president of the Malaysian Bar Council, Ambiga warned that Malaysia was at the crossroads - it was really now or never for a democratic breakthrough.

A little over a month later, Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim wrote an impassioned plea to Foreign Minister Bob Carr asking for Australia’s help - given the close ties and history between the two countries - to ensure Malaysia’s elections were free and fair.

Anwar was essentially saying ’’Australia you are our last, best hope to ensure the elections won’t be stolen.’’ I personally delivered that letter to Carr, and Anwar repeated his plea on ABC radio.

Carr’s response a few hours later went beyond glibness.

Pressed on the role Australia could play, Carr retorted with an uncharacteristically shrill ’’what help are you proposing we provide? Do you want an amphibious landing on the east coast of Malaysia?’’ And the Trade Minister suggested it was ’’silly’’ to link a trade deal with concerns for democratic reforms.

Of course, not all members of the World Trade Organisation are democracies. It has been noted that political scientists since Aristotle have seen the connection between economic development, political reform and democracy. Anwar lamented to me last November that four decades ago Malaysia’s per-capita GDP was higher than South Korea’s. Since then South Korea, despite not having the natural resources of Malaysia, has a per-capita GDP almost four times higher.

Anwar believes the scrutiny and transparency that go hand in hand with a robust democracy are absent in Malaysia, and the ensuing cronyism and corruption are a key factor in this relative stagnation.

The problem with Australia’s free-trade agreement with Malaysia, and the abject failure to link it to democratic reforms there, is that it may have the perverse effect of entrenching the stultifying power of the ruling elite.

And that wouldn’t just be ’’silly’’, Australia would be deeply complicit in a tragedy for Malaysia.

Nick Xenophon is an independent senator for South Australia.