June 27, 2017

Turkey pushed Victorian MPs to boycott community dinner

The Erdogan regimen has ­attempted to exploit tensions in Victoria’s large Turkish community by pressuring federal and state parliamentarians to boycott an iftar, a Ramadan fast-breaking dinner, organised by an Australian community organisation ­inspired by exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Turkey’s Melbourne consulate wrote to all Victorian MPs ahead of this month’s dinner ­accusing the event organiser, the Australian Intercultural Society, of having links with last year’s failed coup in Turkey and urging all MPs not to attend.

The Turkish government intervention was rebuked by 16 members of the Victorian and federal parliament, representing Labor, the Liberals, the Greens and minor parties, taking their seats at the June 5 event.

A co-host of the dinner, state Liberal MP Inga Peulich, said the Turkish government was entitled to raise concerns, but it would have set a bad precedent for local political representative to give in to foreign pressure.

Federal Labor MP Michael Danby said the Turkish interference was a breach of diplo­matic protocol. “It is very untoward for a foreign diplomatic mission to tell Australian politicians which tendency within a certain religion they can mix with,’’ he said.

“The Turkish diplomatic personnel have a real problem around the world. They need to lift their game and stop interfering with the rights of democratically elected Australian politicians of all persuasions.’’

Ms Peulich said she met consulate-general Mehmet Kucuksakalli and representatives from other Turkish organisations and told them she had seen no evidence of any wrongdoing by the AIS, a not-for-profit group ­established 17 years ago to promote interfaith dialogue.

“Everything that I have seen them do here appears to be positive and constructive and consistent with our multicultural priorities,’’ she told The Australian. “If we start caving in to foreign governments where there is no evidence of wrongdoing, where does it stop? What sort of a precedent does it set?

“What is it going to do in relation to China wanting to exercise more muscle or Russia or any other foreign government?’’ Ms Peulich said.

Victoria’s Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Robin Scott, ­responded in writing to the Turkish government concerns. He said the state iftar dinner had been organised and funded for 13 years by AIS and should not be politicised.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed Mr Gulen, a one-time ally now exiled in the US, for the 2016 failed coup that left 247 people dead and more than 2000 people wounded.

In the 11 months since the coup attempt, the Erdogan regimen has conducted a purge of known or suspected Gulen associates and the broader Hizmet movement he leads, which Ankara describes as a terrorist organisation.

More than 50,000 people have been arrested, an estimated 100,000 have lost their jobs, about 1000 schools have been closed and 165 media outlets forced to shut. The purge has been particularly brutal in universities, the public service and the judiciary.

One of the jailed academics is a professor at a leading Australian university who holds dual Australian and Turkish citizenship.

The extent of the purge has meant Australians associated with the AIS are fearful of returning to Turkey and of reprisals against family still living there.

The Speaker of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly, Ismail Kahraman, lobbied Australian MPs to proscribe the AIS as a terrorist ­organisation during his visit to Australia in October.

Serdar Takimoglu, executive principal of Melbourne’s Sirius College, an independent school that supports Mr Gulen’s teachings, said Turkish parents had come under pressure to remove their children from the school in the months following the coup.

Mr Takimoglu said he would not feel safe returning to Turkey, where the government had jailed some of his friends without charge.

Published on The Australian, 27 June 2017, Tuesday