Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
ALP senator Sam Dastyari’s Chinese payment mistake

To his mates in the Labor Party Sam Dastyari is known as Dasher. He’s certainly a young man in a hurry. At 33, he had the No. 1 spot on the ALP’s New South Wales senate ticket. Before that, he was state secretary of the party. Oh, and he belongs to the dominant Right faction with a long history of wheeling and dealing. Peddling influence is the name of the game.

So it’s not surprising that Chinese business interests would be happy that he was cultivating them. Clearly someone so well connected could be useful. But their use to him was more than picking up his personal bills: $5000 in legal fees, not $40,000 as first reported, incurred when he was state secretary, as well as $1600 for a travel allowance overspend now that he’s a senator.

In his less-than-convincing news conference earlier this week, Dastyari gave another perspective that the baying newshounds may have missed: “Over a million people identify as being Australian with Chinese heritage.” In other words, there are a lot of potential voters for the Labor Party in the Chinese-Australian community. While he said the community has a range of views, the fact is they identify proudly with China’s success as a rapidly evolving economic powerhouse.

Analysis in the The Australian picked up that Dastyari’s hard work duchessing the local Chinese community is working. His vote at the election was best in electorates with significant blocs of Chinese. And this is not lost on Liberal MPs in these seats. David Coleman, the Liberal member for Banks, was more than happy to accept the Labor senator’s invitation to co-host an afternoon tea for a visiting Chinese heavyweight. The catering for the event was paid for by the Australia–China Relations Institute. It is run out of the University of Technology in Sydney and is headed by former Labor premier and foreign minister Bob Carr.

But the reporting of the event painted it as a sinister infiltration of Australia. According to Carr, “There’s a moral panic being stirred up.” It is true that Chinese business interests with links to the communist government are funding the institute but so, too, are companies such as Qantas and Rio Tinto. Carr is flabbergasted that serious outlets such as The Australian and The Australian Financial Review are running pieces more in line with the hardline Pentagon view of the world. A prime example was an opinion piece in the AFR that said the 1.5 million Chinese tourists who visit Australia every year could be a security risk. They represent a huge export market, directly linked to the employment of thousands of Australians in hospitality and tourism.

Australia’s most famous anti-communist, B. A. Santamaria, would be proud of the tack. He blasted the Menzies government in the 1950s for selling wheat to “Red China”. The nation can be grateful Menzies took no notice. As Carr’s institute says on its website: “China contributes now more to world economic growth than any other country. China absorbs 34 per cent of Australian goods exports.” The site goes on to spell out that by 2030 there will be 860 million more middle-class Chinese than today. What a market.

On Wednesday, The Australian headlined a story straight out of the Reds under the beds iconography: “Dastyari’s donor has party cell.” It revealed the firm that paid Dasher’s legal bill, the Yuhu Group, has a Communist Party cell or branch among its head office staff. The chairman of the group, Huang Xiangmo, complained recently that despite his group donating $525,500 to political parties in 2014-15, the politicians were treating their Chinese donors as cash cows and ignoring them.

That’s not completely true: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has praised Huang for his business acumen. Yuhu gave $280,000 to the West Australian branch of the Liberal Party. Bishop could hardly not have noticed. The same “tainted” group gave $100,000 directly to then trade minister Andrew Robb’s federal electorate council at a time when he was negotiating the China–Australia Free Trade Agreement.

All of this now looks very suspect according to the yardstick being applied by Malcolm Turnbull to Dastyari. If a $1600 donation is enough to buy influence, what would a $50,000 donation from mining magnate Gina Rinehart directly to Barnaby Joyce’s campaign do? Did she give him the money because he is a fossil fuel champion or is he a fossil fuel champion because she gives him the money?

But the concern around Dastyari is not simply about donations. That is an issue, and one that requires reform. The concern – conscious and unconscious – is about the Chinese.

Professor Rory Medcalf, head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, points out that the Chinese Communist Party is the biggest organisation in the world. It has millions of members, and for a very simple reason: if you want to get on at any level of enterprise in one-party state China, you need to sign up. Even presenters on the state-owned CCTV know the drill. Private or non-state-owned corporations have connections via key people either in management or on their boards being “linked to the governing Communist Party”. On the logic of the hysteria we are seeing now, Australia should shut down all Chinese investment as tainted and refuse dealing with Communists. Crazy, isn’t it?

It was only five years ago when there was bipartisan backing for Julia Gillard’s “strategic partnership” with China. We have even participated in exercises with the Chinese navy. At no time have our governments been naive about strategic issues, but our working relationship with the regime in Beijing has been seen as a useful resource by successive American presidents.

Political opportunism is now getting us into this silly bind. The Liberals’ hard-working champion of the right, Cory Bernardi, was the first to blow the whistle on Dastyari’s $1600 and to dub him the Manchurian candidate for taking cash from a state-owned or -linked donor. For a scarcely majority government still getting over the embarrassment of losing control of the parliament, Bernardi’s work was a godsend. There was even more paydirt when Fairfax revealed that Chinese state-owned media reported that Dastyari had backed, at a joint news conference in Sydney last June, Beijing’s expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea.

Prime Minister Turnbull, in Hangzhou for the G20, cast aside diplomatic niceties to attack Dastyari over this “cash for comment” sentiment. In a statement completely tin-eared to its consequences, Turnbull said: “Back home Bill Shorten is standing up for Sam Dastyari’s right to take from a company associated with a foreign government.” Notice he avoided naming the foreign government. That would be his host government at the time. The one he boasted had done a landmark trade deal with Australia and whose investment and technical innovation is admired and welcomed.

Turnbull’s attack seemed oblivious to the fact his own side of politics had been caught up in China’s soft diplomacy – as had he in opposition. As shadow communications minister he even argued the giant Chinese-owned communications corporation Huawei should be allowed a role in the national broadband network. Our security agencies thought otherwise and the Labor government heeded their advice.

A bevy of senior ministers went into overdrive, joining Turnbull in demanding Bill Shorten sack Dastyari from the frontbench. If he didn’t, it was a failure of leadership and, as Christopher Pyne repeated, “shows he is not fit to ever be prime minister of this country”. Shorten broadened the issue out to the need for campaign donation reform. He called for a ban on foreign entities. And no matter how hard the government’s heavyweights tried to keep the focus on Dastyari, Shorten’s call resonated. Ministers Steve Ciobo and Darren Chester, along with Bernardi and other Liberal backbenchers, agreed reform was needed.

Turnbull, like his Liberal predecessors, is lukewarm to cold on the idea. He is waiting for the joint standing committee on electoral matters to report on the election. A previous report from this committee was completely ignored by the prime minister at the time, Tony Abbott.

The irony is, of course, that Dastyari hadn’t broken any of the disclosure rules. He even declared his dumb mistake. But what gave the government attacks force is that he appeared to have been caught out telling his Chinese donors what they wanted to hear, contrary to bipartisan Australian foreign policy. His claim that his comments on the South China Sea were “misreported” or “misspoke” simply didn’t cut it. He’s not the first politician to tell an audience what it wants to hear, of course: think Tony Abbott’s rural assertion that climate science was “crap”. Irony of ironies: in the end, Dastyari dudded his donors. Rather than push the Beijing line, he says he always supported Labor policy on the South China Sea and publicly reaffirmed that.

But politics, unlike Shorten on Monday, is an unforgiving business. While the leader was prepared to give Dasher a second chance, the farce of his clear-the-air news conference, where he left the question “why?” unanswered and looked very shifty on the South China Sea, triggered a very negative reaction in the Labor Party. And Dastyari knew it.

“It is clear to me now that this has become a distraction,” he said announcing his resignation from the frontbench on Wednesday. “The last thing a government as bad and divided as this one deserves is a free pass.”

Dastyari’s dashed hopes are a political scalp for Cory Bernardi. And it may not be his last one: something of which Malcolm Turnbull is well aware.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 10, 2016 as "Now Dasher’s a chancer, now prancer and victim, so common and stupid, his donor afflicts him". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.

Continue reading your one free article for the week