Undelivered speech by Senator Rex Patrick on his motion to
 establish a Senate Committee inquiry into Australia’s future relations with China

14 May 2020

Mr President,

I move that the following matter be referred to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee for inquiry and report by 30 June 2021:

  • The future development of Australia's relationship with the People’s Republic of China. 

It is sometimes said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Some political observers might think me a bit insane then to propose, yet again, that the Senate establish a wide-ranging inquiry into Australia’s relationship with China 

After all, over 18 months the Coalition and Labor have combined forces no less than five times to block my proposals to refer such an inquiry to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade references committee chaired by Labor’s Senator Kitching. 

Each time I’ve been concerned that various events and issues have demonstrated the need for the Australian Parliament to take a deep dive into the dynamics of Australia-China relations.

The list of those issues and concerns is lengthy, including the Victorian government’s surprise engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative; China’s growing influence in Australia’s immediate sphere of strategic interest; Chinese investments and acquisitions in key sectors of the Australian economy; to serious allegations of Chinese government espionage in Australia and interference in Australian politics –

It has been my strong view that only by pursuing a wide-ranging inquiry, drawing on the full range of available expertise, can we determine the best strategies for moving forward with what is an enormously important but increasingly fraught international relationship; and doing that in a way most likely to enjoy broad support across the Australian political scene.

Managing our dealings with China is of course a task for government, the leader of the Labor Opposition in the Senate, Senator Wong again made that point in an interview earlier this week; but it is also a vital interest and responsibility of this Parliament.  

Parliamentary engagement is essential if we are to move forward with broad support across the Australian political scene. 

One might think that both the Coalition and Labor would welcome a parliamentary process that would provide support for them in making complex and difficult policy choices in our future relations with Beijing. 

Yet on each occasion this initiative has been blocked by the Coalition and Labor. Five times they have voted on a unity ticket.  

Neither side has ever offered a satisfactory explanation for their attitude, but it has always been clear they feared Beijing’s reaction.  

Despite this a growing number of Coalition and Labor Senators have privately expressed to me their interest in and support for an inquiry.  And Senator Kitching herself was once prepared to cosponsor a motion, only to withdraw at the last minute. 

Some others have found it in their personal political interest to agitate about China – the Member for Dawson being but one who has been active in the media in recent days. 

However the fact remains that the leadership of the Government and Opposition have remained timid to the point of self-censorship.  

They repeatedly failed to explicitly call out Chinese government political interference in Australia and China’s increasing resort to strong-arm tactics internationally and in their bilateral dealings with Australia. 

The contrast with some other countries has been striking. 

While the United Statess, Canada, the United Kingdom, and even the small Czech Republic, have been open about the threats of Chinese espionage and political interference, Australian political leaders have bitten their tongues and pulled their punches – even when it has been discovered that Chinese intelligence sought to hack the computers of this Parliament.  . 

In March this year, Canada’s National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians published a major report that called out “significant and sustained” Chinese espionage and political interference as “a significant risk to the rights and freedoms of Canadians and to the country’s sovereignty … a clear threat to the security of Canada”. 

The Australian Parliament’s joint committee on intelligence and security, with only Coalition and Labor members, has never managed such an explicit statement about the extent and threat of Chinese government espionage and interference in Australia.

Of course a great deal has happened since the last time I attempted to initiate a Senate inquiry on 3 December 2019 when the Coalition and Labor last scuttled it.  

Within a month the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan was beginning to spread across China and internationally.

Since January we have not only seen the spread of a pandemic, but also a rolling global economic crisis, the result of what has been called “the Great Lockdown”, with geopolitical consequences that are still emerging and will be felt for years and decades to come.

In some ways, however, we are seeing the acceleration of trends that were already evident, notably the escalation of tensions between Washington and Beijing with the investigation of the coronavirus has become a flash point for wider disputes. 

This acceleration has also been evident in Australia’s relations with China. 

The Chinese government’s response to Australian support for an international COVID-19 inquiry, amplified by the belligerent trumpeting of their state-controlled media, shows the increasingly fraught nature of Australia-China relations.   

The Chinese ambassador’s explicit threat of a Chinese boycott of Australian services and products should certainly be acknowledged as a wakeup call.

The Ambassador unquestionably revealed China’s true attitude and clear preference for control rather than partnership.

Within little more than a week, China has now taken action against our barley and wheat exports. 

Those trade disputes are not new, but it can hardly be a coincidence that China has chosen to escalate matters right now. 

Today we have threats from the Global Times newspaper, effectively a mouthpiece for the Chinese Government, that China could deliberately shift away from Australian iron ore, coal and LNG exports.  

We should not overreact to these threats.  

However in this context it’s all the more important that Australia carefully consider our future approach to dealings with Beijing, and that the Parliament play a role in this because a substantial reset of Australia’s relations with China may well be on the cards.

Of course, had the government and opposition not repeatedly self-censored, we would already have a Senate committee working on a wide-ranging inquiry.

We would already be drawing on expertise from within government, business, universities and non-government organisations to advise on our links with Beijing in a post-coronavirus crisis world so that we would approach the reset better informed. 

So, while it might meet that definition of insanity, the motion before the Senate today gives the Coalition and Labor another opportunity, once again, to act in Australia’s national interest and vote for a broad Senate inquiry. 

Issues that could be examined include:

  • China’s strategic ambitions in the South China Sea, south-east Asia, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean;
  • Australia-China trade relations including the full extent of Australian dependence on Chinese markets;
  • Chinese investment in Australia including in resources, telecommunications and critical infrastructure;
  • the role of the Chinese government in restricting access to its own markets to facilitate takeover bids for Australian exporters;
  • China and Australia’s interest in international health issues including the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Chinese government influence on Australian university campuses, and Chinese government interference in Australian federal and state level politics. 

There is, of course, nothing unusual in the Senate foreign affairs, defence and trade references committee conducting inquiries into Australia's relationship with various different countries.

The Committee is currently engaged in an inquiry into out relations with France, an important relationship certainly, but not in the same league as our dealings with Beijing.  

The Senate committee has looked at China before without controversy. For example, it did an inquiry in relation to China in 2005 and 2006.  

Other parliamentary committees have also reviewed many aspects of Australia's relationship with China. In August 2012, for example, the joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade tabled a report on Australia's human rights dialogue with China. 

The Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth, chaired by the Member for Dawson, is undertaking an inquiry into diversifying Australia’s trade and investment profile, something with obvious implications for our trade relations with China.  

The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade has also just opened an inquiry into the international dimensions of the coronavirus pandemic, an inquiry that will certainly focus on China. 

Presumably both those inquiries enjoy the Government’s endorsement, but neither of these inquiries will involve the wholistic examination of our relationship with China.

It makes absolutely no sense to attack this problem piecemeal. 

Australia is clearly at a strategic, diplomatic and economic turning point in our relations with China.

With the government and opposition calling for an international inquiry into China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, they should also support a rigorous parliamentary examination of Australia’s relations with China.

The new terms of reference before the Senate significantly refer to our future relations. 

That is where the focus needs to be, on Australia’s future relations with China and our national interest; not on the past, and not on political posturing and partisan game playing here.   

China will always be a hugely important element in Australia’s geopolitical and economic circumstances.  We have to work out how we manage that relationship going forward, and do so in ways that benefit both countries while consistent with our national interest.  And we need to do that in ways that enjoy broad political support.  

We don’t need any more political self-censorship on our relations with China.  Nor do we need political grandstanding and megaphone diplomacy.  And we certainly do not need an outbreak of domestic partisan conflict over our dealings with Beijing. 

What the Senate needs to do is to establish a rigorous, non-partisan inquiry. Today’s motion seeks to establish such an investigation.  

We really do need to take a deep dive on this vitally important relationship. 

Only then will we start to build a new national consensus on shaping and managing our dealings with Beijing in what are difficult times 

Australia’s national interest demands nothing less. 

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