It’s been less than a month since Australia’s Turnbull government took a stand for free speech by attempting to reform Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – a law that has been used to silence students, journalists and cartoonists. But the government and its supporters have already sacrificed their pro-free speech credibility by denying a visa to a Palestinian activist.
Bassem Tamimi, who was scheduled to speak in Melbourne and Sydney later this month, had his visa revoked on 5 April, a day after it was initially approved. In a letter quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Immigration Department justified its decision by citing the risk that ‘members of the public will react adversely to Mr Tamimi’s presence in Australia’ because of his views on ‘the ongoing political tensions in the Middle East’.
The department’s decision is completely legal – the immigration minister holds broad powers to cancel visas. And the department is probably correct in that the visit would have been divisive. Tamimi is a vocal critic of Israel, and an advocate of the illiberal Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. His views are likely to be strongly opposed by many Australians, and particularly those in the Australian Jewish community who think BDS singles out Israel and its citizens. But this is hardly a valid reason to deny his visa.
Opponents of Tamimi’s views ought to respond with criticism and debate. Indeed, free and frank discussion about BDS has resulted in every major political party in Australia opposing BDS, including the Greens. Tamimi’s trip to Australia would have been an excellent opportunity to highlight the unequal treatment Israel is subjected to, and to refute and discredit his far more questionable views: ‘I feel that not only Palestine is occupied, the Zionists and their allies dominate the decision in all the world.’
The decision to cancel his visa is particularly unhelpful at a time when the fight for free speech in Australia is on the up. Although the recent campaign to reform Section 18C ended in failure, it did force the Liberal Party to make a stand in support of liberal values. If the Liberal Party’s name is to mean anything, it must support free speech. Tamimi’s visit would have been another opportunity to demonstrate free-speech advocates’ unflinching commitment to open debate.