As the Labor Party searches for answers over the Sam Dastyari leaks, the United States is accused of possible collusion. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
US link to Sam Dastyari leaks
According to sources, the Dastyari leaks are suspected to have involved United States collusion. Senior Labor Party figures believe the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) leaked the audio of Sam Dastyari’s 2016 press conference in front of Chinese media, but possibly did so following pressure from a disgruntled US. “It’s a credible assumption,” one source said, “and everyone’s thinking it.”
A senior source said there was a precedent for the US embassy leaking against the Australian government during the sale of Darwin Port to a Chinese company in 2015. The sale was opposed by the Obama administration.
The view is that the US embassy regards the Labor Party with suspicion because of its closeness to China and its willingness to co-operate with the power.
Further sources said they believed American operatives were responsible for another damaging leak on Dastyari, which revealed that just weeks after the senator’s demotion from the frontbench over his proximity to Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo, a man ASIO had previously warned the major parties was a likely agent for the Chinese Communist Party, Dastyari visited Huang at his home and suggested to him that his phone may be tapped, or its microphone remotely activated. The revelations contradicted a number of Dastyari’s versions of events, and have caused shock, anger and disappointment among his allies and provided his foes another stick with which to beat him.
The third claim involves a separate leak against Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, made just days after the Dastyari tape was made public, in which it was reported the Labor leader visited Huang prior to the federal election – months after an ASIO warning – for a campaign donation. A senior source believes the leak originated from the NSW Right as a warning to Shorten to acquiesce with the pro-China faction.
The claims and counterclaims illuminate both generational and factional disputes within the Labor Party. Another well-placed source disputed the source of the leak against Shorten, for instance, believing it flowed from people close to Huang. The source said that while those in the party were discussing ASIO and US involvement, it was speculative and far from a universal belief.
Although the sources for this story are well placed, they were not able to provide evidence of collusion. Labor anxieties about interference from intelligence services date back to ASIO’s conception in 1949. Its anxieties about improper American influence go back a long way, too – there are still older members who believe the CIA was involved in Gough Whitlam’s dismissal.
Conversations this week revealed serious internal concerns about Labor’s approach to China. Some senior members of the party believe the increasing anti-China rhetoric of the Turnbull government is reckless and should not be emulated by a Shorten government. It was argued that anti-China belligerence was a symptom of racist hysteria, and the increasing influence of ASIO on foreign policy. It was suggested that it was simply an embarrassing resuscitation of Cold War politics.
Others argued that elements of the party were profiting shamelessly from China, and that we were sleepwalking towards servility to a powerful authoritarian state. “This issue is not about Sam’s lack of judgement in isolation,” one senior source told The Saturday Paper. “It’s more systematic. It’s about the role a faction of the NSW Right wants to play in a Shorten government. Will they fuck it up again, or indeed preclude a once-in-a-generation chance of government?
“The NSW subfaction led by [Bob] Carr made the move to pro-China advocacy for money and flawed reading of geopolitics. An uncritical embrace of China’s interests – from the South China Sea to ratifying an extradition treaty with Beijing – is beyond dangerous.”
These conversations happened in the week Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced legislative reforms “targeting foreign interference and espionage”. In a statement, the government said: “The threat of political interference by foreign intelligence services is a problem of the highest order and is getting worse. Foreign intelligence services are engaged in covert influence and interference on an unprecedented scale. This activity is being directed against a range of Australian interests, from our political systems, to our commercial interests, to expatriate communities who have made Australia their home. There are currently no criminal offences targeting this type of interference. Similarly, our existing espionage offences are narrow and difficult to prosecute.”
But it was also the same week in which new Nick Xenophon Team senator, Rex Patrick, a former submariner and defence contractor, called for greater accountability of Australia’s intelligence services in his maiden speech. “Whilst I support our intelligence services, we must also recognise that the power that comes with such an organisation must be appropriately balanced with enhanced accountability,” he said.
This story is a kingdom of mirrors, but the myriad refractions should not distract from Sam Dastyari. He undermined intelligence services with a stunningly clumsy audacity – then repeatedly mischaracterised his actions. Of last year’s remarks to Chinese media on the South China Sea, he admitted to naivety and “garbled” comments. In August, he told me that he “gave a flippant response to the [question of] the South China Sea. I didn’t know enough.”
As the leaked audio makes clear, his remarks were neither garbled nor flippant, but clear and scripted. “The Chinese integrity of its borders is a matter for China, and the role that Australia should be playing, as a friend, is to know, that with the several thousand years of history … where it is and isn’t our place to be involved …” he said. “The Australian Labor Party needs to play an important role in maintaining that relationship, and the best way of maintaining that relationship is knowing when it is and isn’t our place to be involved.”
Dastyari was obliged to address the senate: “A recent audio recording shocked me, as it did not match my recollection of events.” One might confidently assume that what shocked the senator was the existence of the audio, not its contents.
During his public shaming – and demotion from Labor’s frontbench – Dastyari apologised for his overtures to Huang. But just weeks later, he arrived at the donor’s mansion to warn him that his phone was likely compromised. The two men then conversed beyond its range. This was in defiance of ASIO warnings, and contrary to his public contrition.
“This experience will probably have been searing enough to make him more guarded,” former foreign affairs minister Bob Carr told me in August. Evidently it wasn’t.
When Dastyari denies providing “intelligence” to Huang, it is a lawyerly parsing. As an opposition backbencher, Dastyari doesn’t receive intelligence briefings – ergo, he could not have passed any on. But what he was in possession of were suspicions or rumours, which he has not denied sharing. Some believe this was merely the paranoia of a man used to “an ICAC world” – others inside the party suspect a deeper, if inexplicable, mischief.
That Dastyari remains in the senate must be infinitely galling to those expelled from it via section 44. The intention of the constitution’s authors is clear, however zealous and impractical we might find its expression today – lowering the odds of parliamentarians improperly dealing with a foreign power. In other words, it’s entirely pre-emptive. But Dastyari has done the very thing the constitution sought to prevent. One can imagine the frustration of intelligence services watching the law exercised so vigorously on one group of people, and not at all on the other.
Dastyari’s behaviour should not be surprising. When I profiled the senator earlier this year, many of those outside the NSW Right described him similarly – intelligent, personable … and congenitally untrustworthy. Certainly there are factional grievances at play here, but to speak with Dastyari is to receive an exhausting masterclass in ingratiation. His responses are a hot mix of flattery, jokes, sophistry, indignation and personal confession.
While on his rehab tour, Dastyari sought to make his self-deprecations more disarming than his misdemeanours were disagreeable. It is not a complicated tactic, but when your peers are maddeningly disinclined to admit fault, it can appear almost eccentric. It’s not. It’s calculated. We can see clearly now that the tens of thousands of words Dastyari expended this year in polishing his image were mangy with omissions and partial truths.
Again, this should not be surprising. This is, after all, a man who waxed tenderly in his memoir of his mentor Graham Richardson.
The Dastyari leaks have been a godsend to a beleaguered government. As one Labor insider lamented, so consuming have the issues of dual citizenship and foreign influence been that much time has passed since Shorten sustained an argument about wages or inequality.
The fact that senior members of the Labor Party hold suspicions about ASIO and the US is significant. And even for those inside the party inclined to embrace the US as an indispensable ally – and a force for global good – their faith has been complicated by the presidency of Donald Trump.
Within the Labor Party, some substantial debates about China and foreign policy are being had – but too often these conversations are furtive, or ensnared in tribal paranoia. Some Labor sources dismissed as facile the near-Manichean view of China as good or evil – but also expressed disappointment in Dastyari and the string of former leaders profiting from China while expounding on foreign policy. It was, they said, an obvious conflict of interest of which too many had grown complacent.
The Labor Party has much to reconcile, but they hardly have a monopoly on dubious foreign connections. Dastyari has drawn the spotlight, but in a fortnight of leaks and counter-leaks, former Liberal politician Andrew Robb’s contract with the Chinese firm Landbridge found its way to Fairfax Media. Trade minister during the sale of Darwin Port to the Landbridge company, Robb now enjoys a lavish salary from them.
The foreign interest legislation is overdue. But it does not resolve the thicket of questions regarding political culture, foreign policy, or the influence of intelligence services – both domestic and foreign.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 9, 2017 as "American exports".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial