Australia cancels vote on China extradition treaty

MPs from both ruling coalition and opposition concerned about China's human rights record

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday cancelled a vote on a long-awaited extradition treaty with China after MPs from both the ruling coalition and the opposition expressed concerns that suspects transferred to China may not receive a fair trial.

In an embarrassing backdown, Mr Turnbull withdrew the controversial treaty before it was due to be voted on - and rejected - by Australia's Senate.

The move came two days after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang ended a five-day state visit to Australia to strengthen ties and sign off on a series of trade deals. During the visit, Mr Li reportedly urged Canberra to ratify the treaty - one of the first between Beijing and a Western, English-speaking nation.

China hoped that the treaty, first signed a decade ago, would assist in its pursuit of corrupt officials who have fled overseas. China said yesterday that it hoped Australia would ratify the extradition treaty.

"The early entry into force of the treaty will offer an institutional guarantee for China-Australia collaboration on counter cross-border crimes, and boost bilateral law enforcement and judicial cooperation," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told a routine press briefing, as quoted by Xinhua news agency.

Mr Turnbull, facing growing domestic opposition to the treaty, tried to rally support by claiming it would help Australian law enforcement agencies crack down on drug smuggling.

But several MPs in his Liberal-National Coalition had indicated that they would take the unusual step of voting against the government and rejecting the treaty.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop reportedly held an urgent meeting on Monday with Coalition MPs to try to quell the revolt.

But she yesterday revealed that the government would withdraw the treaty and work with China and the opposition Labor party to find a workable solution.

"I will continue to work with the Labor Party and the Chinese to see if we can find a way to ratify this extradition (treaty), which I believe and in my opinion is undoubtedly in the national interest," Ms Bishop said.

The treaty has been in limbo in Australia for a decade because of concerns about China's legal system.

Such concerns have been heightened in recent years following the detention in China of staff from Australian companies, including employees from gaming firm Crown Resorts who have been detained since late last year.

Labor's shadow Cabinet decided on Monday night to reject the treaty, calling for it to be reviewed to ensure it was consistent with Australia's international legal obligations.

Labor's foreign affairs spokesman Penny Wong suggested the party was not targeting China and was concerned about numerous treaties currently under review. But several Labor MPs have signalled they are fiercely opposed to the treaty over concerns about China's human rights record.

The Greens and several minor party MPs in the Senate had already indicated they would not support it.

But the opposition was not limited to Labor or to left-leaning MPs, and included right-leaning members of the conservative Coalition.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott, a staunch conservative, yesterday publicly voiced his opposition to the treaty, saying he wanted to deepen ties with China but not at the expense of Australia's "values and long-term interest".

Australian law enforcement agencies are reportedly concerned that the failure to ratify the treaty may affect cooperation on curbing drug smuggling.

The government insisted the treaty had adequate safeguards to ensure Australia would not extradite suspects who may be unfairly treated or tortured, or face the death penalty, which Australia opposes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2017, with the headline 'Australia cancels vote on China extradition treaty'. Print Edition | Subscribe