Justice minister should live up to his title

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 February, 2004, 12:00am

The continued refusal of Australia's justice minister to explain why he has blocked the extradition to Hong Kong of two men facing fraud and corruption charges is insulting, arrogant and ignorant.

Chris Ellison has stubbornly turned a deaf ear to requests from our alarmed officials for the reasons behind this extraordinary decision to allow two alleged criminals to escape trial. Taken at face value, the move is an affront to justice. And it threatens to disturb the excellent relationship Hong Kong has long enjoyed with Australia. The very least Senator Ellison can do is explain what lies behind it.

In case he has overlooked the seriousness of the allegations faced by former senior executives Carl Voigt and David Hendy, let us remind him. They are accused of masterminding a major piling scam in the late 1990s. They are alleged to have instructed staff to build short, sub-standard piles on a residential project in Tung Chung and then offer bribes to an engineer to fabricate construction records. Three employees have been jailed in Hong Kong for up to five years for their involvement. And the judge who sentenced them lamented that the leading lights in the conspiracy had escaped.

This is the first time since the handover that an Australian justice minister has stepped in to block an extradition to Hong Kong. What makes it so surprising is that the courts in Australia have already subjected the case to a thorough examination - and given the green light for the men to be returned. If the process had been blocked by the courts, it would not have been so bad: at least the proceedings would have taken place in public and the reasons made known. But Senator Ellison has decided he knows better than the judiciary. He is not prepared to tell us why.

More than three months have passed since Senator Ellison allowed Voigt to be released. This was compounded by letting Hendy off the hook on December 23. Since then, Hong Kong officials have been seeking an explanation from the Australian government. But Senator Ellison shrouds his motives in secrecy, hiding behind a legal provision that permits him not to explain his decision. His actions are unacceptable and irresponsible.

They leave us guessing what possible justification there could be for refusing to return the suspects to Hong Kong. The reasons why extraditions might normally be refused do not apply in this case. The men are not wanted for a political crime; this is a criminal case. There is no risk of them receiving the death penalty, which was abolished years ago. And our legal system will ensure they receive a fair trial.

Senator Ellison can rest assured that, like Australia, we have an independent judiciary and apply common law principles. Should there be any room for doubt, it is surely removed by the fact that Australia has been happy to return other suspects to Hong Kong in the six years since the handover. And at least one of those cases has involved white-collar crime.

Senator Ellison's refusal to come clean on this matter will, inevitably, lead to speculation as people ponder what his motives might be. It is in everyone's interests for the decision to be explained.

The law gives the justice minister the final word on whether to grant extradition requests. But his decision is a political one with potential repercussions for international relations. It is time for Prime Minister John Howard, or his foreign minister, Alexander Downer, to get involved. They might consider the decision is hardly compatible with the country's efforts to be regarded as a good friend of China.

Hong Kong is entitled to an explanation. Better still, Hong Kong is entitled to see the alleged criminals returned to face trial. Otherwise, we will be left with the impression that the minister is responsible for an injustice.