This week’s ABC Four Corners/Fairfax expose of Chinese activities in Australia is alarming – not just for its revelations about a multi-fronted pattern of influence-seeking, but also for what it says about our political elite.
Are its members – on both sides of politics – naive, stupid, or just greedy for either their parties or themselves?
Why did they think Chau Chak Wing and Huang Xiangmo – two billionaires with apparently close links to the Chinese Communist Party – and associated entities would want to pour millions of dollars into their parties?
Did they believe that, in the absence of democracy in the land of their birth, these businessmen were just anxious to subsidise it abroad? Hardly.
Even worse, after ASIO had explicitly warned the Coalition parties and Labor in 2015 about the business figures and their links to the Chinese regime, how could the Liberals, Nationals and ALP keep accepting more of their money? Seemingly, their voracious desire for funds overcame ethics and common sense.
And why would former trade minister Andrew Robb not see a problem in walking straight from parliament into a highly lucrative position with a Chinese company?
The spotlight is back on Labor senator Sam Dastyari who last year stepped down from the frontbench over a controversy involving a debt paid by Chinese interests. Monday’s program reported that Dastyari’s office and he personally lobbied intensively to try to facilitate Huang’s citizenship application. The application had stalled; it was being scrutinised by ASIO.
While the Liberals will, quite legitimately, renew their attacks on Dastyari, the case of Robb, also highlighted in the program, raises a more complex question.
Robb brought to fruition Australia’s free-trade deal with China. He announced his retirement late in the last parliament, stepping down as minister but seeing out the term as special trade envoy. He was one of the government’s most successful performers.
On September 2 last year Robb’s appointment as a senior economic adviser to the Landbridge Group – the Chinese company that had gained a 99-year lease to the Port of Darwin – was announced on the company’s website.
Landbridge’s acquisition of the Port of Darwin was highly controversial, despite being given the OK by the defence department. The Americans were angry they were not accorded notice, with President Barack Obama chipping Malcolm Turnbull about it.
Monday’s expose revealed that Robb was put on the Landbridge payroll from July 1 last year, the day before the election, and that his remuneration was A$73,000 a month – $880,000 a year – plus expenses.
Robb was touchy last year when his new position was questioned, saying: “I’ve been a senior cabinet minister – I know the responsibilities that I’ve got. I’ve got no intention of breaching those responsibilities.”
He did not give an interview to Monday’s program, but told it in a statement: “I can confirm that I fully understand my responsibilities as a former member of cabinet, and I can also confirm that I have, at all times, acted in accordance with those responsibilities”.
The formal responsibilities for post-separation employment are set out in the Statement of Ministerial Standards, dated November 20, 2015.
Ministers are required to undertake that, for an 18-month period after ceasing to be a minister, they will not lobby, advocate or have business meetings with members of the government, parliament, public service or defence force on any matters on which they have had official dealings as minister in their last eighteen months in office.
Ministers are also required to undertake that, on leaving office, they will not take personal advantage of information to which they have had access as a minister, where that information is not generally available to the public.
Ministers shall ensure that their personal conduct is consistent with the dignity, reputation and integrity of the parliament.
While Robb is not a lobbyist, and would argue that he has not contravened the letter of this code, it is hard to see how quickly taking such a position does not bring him into conflict with its spirit.
Why would this company be willing to pay a very large amount of money for his services? The obvious answer is because of who he is, his background, his name, his knowledge, and his contacts.
Robb surely would have done better to steer right away from the offer.
Both government and opposition, having for years been caught napping or worse about Chinese penetration, have started scrambling to be seen to be acting.
Turnbull last month asked Attorney-General George Brandis to lead a review of the espionage laws. Brandis says he will take a submission to cabinet “with a view to introducing legislation before the end of the year”.
The government is planning to bring in legislation in the spring parliamentary session to ban foreign donations, a complex exercise when, for example, a figure such a Chau, an Australian citizen, is involved.
In an attempt at one-upmanship, Bill Shorten – again on the back foot over Dastyari – says Labor won’t accept donations from the two businessmen featured in Monday’s program, and challenges Turnbull to do the same.
Shorten already has a private member’s bill before parliament to ban foreign donations, and on Tuesday wrote to Turnbull calling for a parliamentary inquiry “on possible measures to address the risk posed by foreign governments and their agents seeking to improperly interfere in Australia’s domestic political and electoral affairs”.
Out of it all will come action on foreign donations and perhaps tighter espionage laws. But it is to the politicians’ deep discredit that they have been so cavalier about the integrity of our political system for so long.