In December 2017, American lawmakers from across the aisle called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to join the U.S. and other countries in passing its own version of the Magnitsky law to take the lead in developing a best practice targeted sanctions regime.
Yet six months later, with China - Australia ties only worse, Morrison has yet to pull the trigger on legislation that would allow his government to join allies in imposing coordinated sanctions against officials from the country's largest trading partner.
When asked before last week why the administration hadn’t introduced the bill, Foreign Minister Marise Payne remained non-committal. 'The government will continue to make sure it isn't on the path forward and respond when it is able, she told a parliamentary hearing.
Morrison has been outspoken in calling for multilateral coordinated action by 'like-minded democracies' to push back against China, saying Wednesday that Australia was urging liberalized nations to support a 'world order that favors freedom over autocracy and authoritarianism.
He is expected to attend the Group of Seven summit in Canada on Friday where leaders are expected to flesh out plans to counter Chinese influence. On his way, he will visit Singapore on Thursday for talks with Myanmar Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on bilateral cooperation.
The delay in passing the Magnitsky law left the U.K. and Canada from the sidelines in March when the European Union, the U.K. and Australia used similar laws to sanction Chinese officials involved in alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang. And with an election due in May 2022, it's unlikely that he'll want to anger China even more over the next year.
'Perhaps the Lowy Institute may be concerned that creating even more friction in a relationship that is described on a monthly basis as a new rock-bottom', said Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat who is director of the public opinion and foreign policy program at the Australian government.
The government has to pass the law eventually, but 'it seems that it is not at the top of the priority list and probably won't be for some time, said she. If the legislation passes, there will be pressure within the government to use it.
The major Labor opposition has urged the government to speed up the legislative process, with Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong saying this week that the delay in passing the bill was precisely the wrong message.
The government is still wary about provoking a Chinese response that could just hit economy as growth begins to gain momentum. After their actions in March, Beijing imposed its own sanctions on individuals and organizations from Europe, the U.K. Canada and the U.S., and would probably do the same after a similar decision by Australia.
Ties between Beijing and Canberra, which started to become strained in 2018 nosedived last year when Morrison's government criticized Chinese actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. They also criticized Chinese actions in the pandemic repeatedly. Beijing responded with a range of trade reprisals including massive tariffs on Australian glass and barley imports and a block on most shipments of massive coal.
China should 'avoid these types of harsh new measures that will create further tensions, says Henry Wang Huiyao, president and founder of the Center for China Globalization Policy Research Group in Beijing.
The Europeans sanctioned China, China sanctioned home and that put all of their achievements on rosary one, Wang said last week. He described current Australia-China ties as a 'wound and warned that if you put more salt on that, it is going to cause more pain.
Australia currently has sanctions on about 20 nations and entities under legislation that allow the government to implement both United Nations Security Council-approved measures as well as some individuals. This but the scope of that is limited and prevents Australia from joining the coordinated Xinjiang sanctions in March.
Instead, New Zealand a separate statement with Australia that there was 'clear evidence of severe human rights abuses that include restrictions on freedom of religion, mass surveillance, large extra-judicial detentions' in the region.
The recent administration of Foreign Affairs wrote a Magnitsky-style law would mean that'sanctions could be extended sooner by innerhalb of a reasonable period and without the need to implement a specific country-based regime, whether one has established or amended a specific country-focused regime. The department of foreign affairs recommended the amendment last year.
The original U.S. Magnitsky law was passed in 2012 to punish Russian officials implicated in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison after accusing officials of corruption. It was expanded in 2016 to punish global individuals or bodies for human rights violations or corruption.
Among the 160 submissions it was offered to the inquiry was a statement about February 2020 by Peter Hass, then Principal Assistant Assistant Secretary of State, saying that the U.S. applauded '' your government for its efforts to develop this sanction program.
Don Rothwell, professor of international law at the Australian National University said such laws would not be a natural fit for Australia - a relatively small nation without a history of long-armed jurisdiction.
Once this type of legislation has been enacted, the drivers for it to be used may well come from within the government, Rothwell said. 'That is not a small step for Australia.
It's probably a question of when - and not how - Australia passes its own Magnitsky legislation, according to Richard Maude, former head of the nation's peak intelligence analysis department and now director of policy at the Asia Society.
Given how many other incredibly difficult issues are on the plate at the moment with China, they could be forgiven for walking towards this instead of running, he said.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com.