Haneef is a character test for all of us

andrewsmikes.jpgThe Haneef case is back in the headlines again this week, and with Kevin Andrews promising to appeal against the decision to overturn his ban on the good (or otherwise?) doctor’s visa, and the family’s determination to take it to the High Court if necessary, we’re more or less guaranteed it will stay there. I don’t know whether Haneef is a terrorist mastermind or not. But, like many, I strongly suspect the latter, and his recent decision to release the whole of his second interview transcript seems to help him establish this. The case raises important questions about where we, as a society, draw the line between national security concerns and our values as an open, welcoming community. And, so far, like Andrews when he tries to explain why he doesn’t want Haneef here, we just don’t have good enough answers.

I had an interesting discussion with a friend recently who was only too happy to advocate the suspension of civil liberties in cases of suspected terrorism. Haneef’s detention didn’t bother him at all, he said. What if you had kids, he asked me emotively, and locking someone up could save them from being blown up? And it’s not a bad question, although I’d like to think I’m reasonably opposed to other people’s children being blown up as well.
The thing is, I’m not a huge fan of innocent people being locked up, or denied visas, either. Every Haneef situation chips away at Australia’s precious openness, its wonderful easygoingness, its willingness to give people from around the world a chance to become part of its society. And that’s why I think we need more than just guilt-by-association in this situation.
Look, if Haneef has been involved with anything dubious himself, of course we should tear up his visa forever – of course. We have been extremely fortunate to avoid any terrorist attacks on Australian soil since 9/11, and there is no doubt that we need to be vigilant. But it simply isn’t reasonable to punish someone because their relatives were alleged terrorists. I have a lot of cousins with considerable integrity, and I’d hate for them to be thought worse of because of my own brush with the law. (Speaking of which, I didn’t actually get my gear off – I was filming. And yes, I’m still waiting for damages from Fairfax.) Similarly, Peter Costello cannot be held responsible for all of his brother Tim’s deeply concerning links with charity.
What the Haneef situation tells us is that there is something wrong with our immigration regime, which concentrates enormous power in the hands of the Immigration Minister. This discretion approach would not work even in the hands of a competent minister. Whereas, we have Kevin Andrews, who floundered on Lateline last night. Andrews seems to think that the word “terrorist” is some kind of magic totem that renders him impervious to criticism – Tony Jones didn’t buy it. And nor would any viewer. If Andrews can’t make a better defence of his decision than the limp claim that “It goes to potentially people who have knowledge of things that have occurred in a terrorist way,” it’s hardly surprising so many people are sceptical about his claims.
His mantra that there is other evidence that can’t be released because it would prejudice ongoing investigations is, by its nature, irrefutable so long as that evidence is not in the public domain. But this is unsatisfactory for all concerned – not least Andrews, who’s left without the means to exonerate himself – and the tidbits he’s presented so far have only bolstered the sceptics.
Moreover, since these decisions are made by a politician, it’s impossible to leach the unpleasant taste of politics from the decision. Not only does it undermine the credibility of the decision, but it leaves the minister with no real grounds to defend himself from criticism if the decision is correct. In the absence of a smoking gun (or 4WD, perhaps), Andrews has little to no chance of convincing many that this isn’t another attempt by the Howard Government to blow its proverbial dog whistle by showing its toughness on dubious immigrants. This should be a decision that is primarily about public safety & that is, law and order, not policy. And politicians are not good at making legal decisions. That’s why we have a judiciary.
I’m not calling for a judicial inquiry like Labor, incidentally. That doesn’t go far enough. Rather, the decision on whether to grant Haneef’s visa – and indeed all controversial visa applications, even Snoop Dogg’s – should be made by an independent review tribunal that is able to hear confidential evidence in camera so as to avoid compromising ongoing investigations, but is otherwise open to the public. Politics must be taken out of the process. Ultimately, the decision to cancel a visa is a judicial decision involving weighing evidence. Either Haneef is a threat or he isn’t, and I think it’s clear by now that Andrews is not the right person to make the judgment call.
Sure, passing these kinds of situations to an independent body would make it difficult for the Immigration Minister to front up on the news and look tough on migrants, but I wouldn’t exactly view that as a disadvantage. And I’ve no doubt that even Andrews would now be happy for this particular hot potato to be passed onto someone else.
There are some positives to be drawn from the Haneef affair, though. The intense media scrutiny, the heated protests, and the public’s apparent refusal to simply take the Government’s statements at face value show that many of us place an enormous premium on our civil liberties, and – more contentiously – those of migrants. Australians are often accused of apathy as our liberties are eroded – an allegation David Marr raised recently. The public outrage over Haneef is a powerful counterexample.
At this point, surely Haneef is no threat to national security. Even in the extraordinarily unlikely event that he actually was involved in any terrorism, by this point the chances of him getting up to anything are surely non-existent. ASIO and the media will be watching him like hawks. Unless there is something seriously problematic that Andrews is keeping from us – and we’re now at the point where he needs to come up with much better answers, or risk the complete erosion of the public’s confidence in him – we should reissue Haneef’s visa immediately.