Australia still owes HK an explanation

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 February, 2004, 12:00am

Australia's justice minister seems to think that by uttering a few terse and unhelpful comments concerning his refusal to return two suspected criminals to Hong Kong, he can conveniently bring the unhappy affair to an end. But the damaging repercussions of his decisions cannot be swept aside.

Chris Ellison still believes we are not entitled to know why these former company executives accused of fraud and corruption in our city should be allowed to escape trial. Instead, the minister expects us to sit back and accept the patronising assertion that he did it 'for the best''. He is treating Hong Kong with contempt.

And if that were not bad enough, the minister has also gravely underestimated the extent to which his actions have blackened Australia's reputation and jeopardised the friendly relations we have long enjoyed with his country.

As a senator and former solicitor with experience in several policy areas, Senator Ellison no doubt once learned the phrase 'comity of nations'. Perhaps he has forgotten what it means. Let us remind him: comity of nations is the principle requiring states to recognise and respect the laws and institutions of others. It lies at the heart of the system by which the rule of law is enforced around the world and forms a basis for harmonious international relations. It demands courtesy, civility, and goodwill. None of these qualities apply to Senator Ellison's handling of the extradition issue.

He seems to take heart because our officials have not - yet - launched legal action to challenge his decision. 'I've had communications with them on my reasons and that's where the matter rests,' he said. But Hong Kong officials, who are not as rude and arrogant as Senator Ellison, naturally would ask for an explanation before deciding whether to take the matter further. For the minister to dismiss Hong Kong's concerns on the grounds that our government has not taken action seems to us to be a tempting invitation to our officials to apply for a judicial review of his decisions in the Australian courts. It is an invitation which the Department of Justice may well be inclined to accept: Senator Ellison's decision is unprecedented; it is also without justification.

Australian nationals David Hendy and Carl Voigt have been allowed to go free. They stand accused over a substandard-piling scam in Tung Chung in the late 1990s. The alleged crimes are serious ones which involved dishonesty and corruption - and had the potential to make the residential project unsafe. The Australian courts had approved their extradition and the case did not appear exceptional. So why did Senator Ellison step in and order the suspects be released?

It cannot be because this is a case of white-collar crime. Australia has, since the handover, returned other suspects accused of such offences to Hong Kong. So have the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. The ability to ensure the fraudulent and corrupt have no refuge is an important feature of the international effort to combat such crimes.

The minister has hinted at other reasons behind his decision. In the case of Hendy, he said, personal circumstances had been taken into account, including his age, health and family situation. But it is difficult to conceive of personal circumstances which are so strong that they can bring the wheels of justice shuddering to a halt. Neither suspect is old and the courts both here and in Australia routinely deal with people who have health or family problems - often of the most serious kind. If personal circumstances were behind Senator Ellison's decision, he must be prepared to reveal what they were.

The minister says he has given very careful consideration to the case. But he should think again. Australia's reputation is at stake.