Statements: Member for Chisholm

18 September 2019

Senator Patrick: 

I rise to speak in response to Senator Cormann's statement. Centre Alliance supported Senator Wong's motion yesterday calling on the Leader of the Government in the Senate to provide an explanation of the government's response to allegations raised against the member for Chisholm and an assurance to the Senate that the member for Chisholm is a fit and proper person to remain a member of the Australian parliament. This is a highly unusual motion, but a very necessary one in the context of the serious allegations raised in relation to the member for Chisholm. Those allegations boil down to the fact that the member for Chisholm has been reported to have been associated with and, indeed, been a member of organisations associated with the overseas influence and propaganda activities of the government of the People's Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party. The member for Chisholm has denied aspects of these allegations—first in what she described as a clumsy media interview and then in a very carefully drafted statement, apparently drafted by the Prime Minister's office—but she has not been prepared to address these issues in the parliament. Allegations have also emerged about the member for Chisholm's responsibilities under the law to declare certain political donations made to the Liberal Party.

These matters have not been satisfactorily resolved by the member for Chisholm nor have they been resolved by the government. Instead, the government has decided to circle the wagons. Yesterday, the Leader of the Government in the Senate echoed the Prime Minister, who had declared that the government had full confidence in the member for Chisholm and then, unfortunately, accused the Labor opposition of engaging in tactics of smear and innuendo. Senator Cormann has added nothing to the discussion this morning. What should happen is that the member for Chisholm should make a comprehensive statement to the parliament addressing all allegations and issues that have been raised. What the government should do is ask the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to conduct a thorough investigation of the member for Chisholm's foreign political connections and then provide the parliament with the outcome of that investigation. Simple statements that the government has full confidence in the member for Chisholm aren't enough. It is, of course, not the ethnic background of the member for Chisholm that is the issue, not even remotely; it is her reported connections to a foreign power—a foreign power that has engaged in extensive influence and covert interference activities in our country.

Both Labor and the coalition have played partisan politics on the question of Chinese influence, and each has launched partisan attacks on the other in relation to particular individuals and cases, but we have to look at this in the wider context of China's economic and geopolitical rise, our deep trading relationship with China, the massive flow of Chinese investment into our country, the ever-growing people-to-people ties between Australia and China and the unambiguous desire of the Chinese government to directly influence our political, diplomatic and economic choices. This has been developing for a long time, and all the while we have had a series of worrying incidents that have gone inadequately investigated and haven't been resolved.

A decade ago we had serious allegations raised about the member for Hunter's relationship with a Chinese-Australian property developer, Helen Liu—and, I must stress, she is no relation of the member for Chisholm. The member for Hunter was then the defence minister. Years later, it has been confirmed that Ms Liu was directly connected with a senior Chinese intelligence officer who was actively engaged in covert political funding operations. More recently, we have had the unfortunate case of former Senator Dastyari, and we now have the revelations from the New South Wales Independent Commission against Corruption of an Aldi bag stuffed with $100,000 in cash.

However, these high-profile political scandals are part of a wider stream of controversies concerning China's growing influence in Australia, including, for example, China's aggressive interest in Australian resources and critical infrastructure; the Chinese acquisition of Darwin's port infrastructure; the revelation that a Chinese owned mining company has been allowed to set up shop in Australia's top-secret Woomera defence testing range; concerns about China's political influence on Australian university campuses; and deeply worrying reports of extensive Chinese cyberespionage activities. The outgoing director-general of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, has called foreign interference an 'existential threat'. He didn't name China, but that's what he was talking about.

The problem is that both the coalition and Labor are keen to fire partisan shots at each other, whether about Sam Dastyari or Gladys Liu, but they refuse to talk openly about the elephant—or, rather, the panda—in the room. Neither side wants to open debate about our future relationship with China. They are fearful of Beijing's reaction and fearful of what that might reveal about the extent of China's reach within our economy and our political institutions. Twice the coalition and Labor have voted together to block a Senate inquiry into relations with China. This week, Reuters reported that our intelligence agencies positively identified China as the source of hacking attacks on this parliament and both major political parties, but neither the government nor Labor want to talk about that. A year after the passage of our Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, the parliament still hasn't created an equivalent parliamentary scheme. Only now has the Senate Standing Committee of Privileges been tasked to renew its inquiry on that matter, thanks to a Centre Alliance initiative.

Australia can enjoy a prosperous and mutually respectful relationship with China, but only if we get our house in order and are properly insistent on respect for our sovereign democracy. In years to come, I fear we may look back on these debates and say that that was when we missed our opportunity to address issues that go to the very heart of our sovereign democracy, that that was when we failed to address an existential threat, the 'panda in the room', because our major political parties were too busy engaging in partisan spats to see the bigger picture. I very much hope those fears are mistaken, but I fear they are not.