Paul Bongiorno
Political missteps over China

Malcolm Turnbull’s carpet-bombing of Labor’s Sam Dastyari was always desperate politics and it has not served Australia’s national interest well. Saturday’s byelection in the Sydney seat of Bennelong will define the forced resignation of Dastyari from the parliament as a pyrrhic victory. In claiming the political head of the senator, the prime minister has alienated not only the sizeable Chinese community in the seat but he has antagonised our biggest trading partner.

Turnbull’s worry was made plain in his frank admission midweek that the byelection was tight, a fact documented by a Newspoll of the electorate that found a 9.7 per cent swing to Labor and a 50-50 result. Even if the Liberal incumbent, John Alexander, manages to regain the seat he lost thanks to section 44 of the constitution, a sizeable swing will send shudders through the 24 government MPs representing seats with much slimmer margins.

One such interstate Liberal MP is worried Barnaby Joyce’s soaring victory in New England was exceptional. He fears the government will come back to earth with a thud in Sydney. Turnbull told reporters: “You are right. So, there is a big risk here. It’s a very tight contest.” He repeated it as if it were the one thing that will finally save the day: “It’s a very, very tight contest.” If Alexander were to lose this seat, then Bill Shorten would be one step closer to being prime minister.

On Tuesday, the Liberals took out some pre-emptive insurance in case Labor’s candidate Kristina Keneally emulates on Saturday the giant-slayer Maxine McKew, who in 2007 defeated the incumbent prime minister, John Howard, and wins the seat. The party released its private polling to show such a victory would be in spite of Shorten and not because of him. It purported to indicate that every time the Labor leader campaigned in the area, Keneally had to work harder to compensate.

Shorten dismissed the polling as propaganda. He took a lead from Keneally in turning the attacks on Dastyari being a “Chinese double agent” as evidence of the government’s “China phobia”. It was a potent retort in an electorate where 17 per cent are Chinese born and 44,000 claim Chinese heritage. Keneally widened the net of those who were taking offence at the security threat rhetoric of the government. She says people from China and Korea are alarmed because they see it as scaremongering that suggests people of Asian backgrounds are “somehow suspicious”.

Endorsement for this claim came from a former state Liberal MP from the area, Helen Sham-Ho. She quit the Liberals and sat as an independent in the legislative council after falling out with John Howard over racism. She told Radio National that the Dastyari affair would damage the Liberals more than Labor, claiming that many ethnic voters “think the government is anti-Chinese at this point of time”. Liberals with long memories recall the big part these voters played in Howard’s defeat. One official at his election wake was reported blaming the “fucking Chinese”.

There’s no doubt Turnbull and his ministers overcooked the hyperbole in saying “Shanghai Sam” – or “Szechuan Sam” – had put the interests of a foreign power ahead of Australia’s. On the campaign trail the day after Dastyari finally quit, so as not to be a “distraction from the pursuit of Labor’s mission”, Turnbull confirmed that our security agencies were eavesdropping on Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo. He did this by slamming Dastyari for telling Huang he was under surveillance. On Monday night’s Q&A, Turnbull denied the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was the source of the leaks to the original Fairfax story.

The clumsiness of this brutal, desperate politics has swept aside the diplomatic niceties that clearly should be maintained in the national interest, especially in regard to a sensitive economic giant such as China. It is true that head of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, set the context earlier in the year by naming China for its undue influence and interference in Australian domestic affairs. But it is completely disingenuous of the prime minister and his soon to be security tsar Peter Dutton to on the one hand attack Dastyari for espionage because of his dealings with Huang and on the other claim the government is not singling out China. Beijing doesn’t buy it.

But this shift in government rhetoric and sentiment around China did not start with Dastyari and Bennelong. These two events have merely blown it out of any sane proportion. It can be traced back to the arrival of the mercurial Trump presidency worsening America’s paranoia about China’s rising economic power and influence in the Asia-Pacific region – a paranoia fed by the increasingly nationalistic assertiveness of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

John Howard’s comfortable formula of Australia’s history – as a US ally not needing to be in conflict with our geography – is no longer tenable. Our foreign policy needs a more subtle tweaking than it’s getting.

We should not be tempted to respond to Dastyari’s over-the-top schmoozing of his and Labor’s generous Chinese donors with the adoption of a damaging and immature framing of our relationship with China. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop showed something of what is needed when last year she refused to endorse the call from Labor’s then shadow defence minister Stephen Conroy to send the Royal Australian Navy up to the South China Sea to assert freedom of passage in the disputed international waters.

In the present fevered climate, Bishop might be accused of taking this more measured approach because Huang had also donated generously to Liberals in her home state. His largesse was topped by another businessman, Dr Chau Chak Wing, who donated $200,000 to the West Australian Liberal division. Chau was also fingered in an ABC Four Corners report for his “close ties to the Chinese Communist Party”. Helen Sham-Ho explains this financial generosity in terms of Chinese culture respecting power. And why do you respect power? Because those in power can do something for you.

Australia’s problem is that Beijing is as unsubtle as we have become in the current mudslinging debate. There are any number of examples of China using its economic leverage to punish those who cross it. Just ask South Korea. The reaction from Beijing to the government’s behaviour here has been fierce, undermining glib assurances from Turnbull and Bishop that our diplomatic relationship is as rosy as ever.

This doesn’t mean Canberra should capitulate to the global superpower but it does mean avoiding unnecessary provocation. “You don’t poke the panda in the eye,” is the way one Labor figure puts it. He cites as an example Conroy, communications minister in the Gillard government, who barred the Chinese communications giant Huawei from involvement in the national broadband network but made no public announcement of the decision, made on the advice of our security agencies. It was later leaked. Turnbull, then the shadow minister with Huawei contacts, argued strongly against the ban and signalled he would overturn it in government. He hasn’t.

Still, Labor is not necessarily completely of one mind in how to best deal with China. Sam Dastyari is an influential member of the NSW Right, the faction of former foreign minister Bob Carr. Carr now heads the Australia–China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, which was set up with seed funding of $1.8 million from Huang. Its critics paint it as a perfect example of China’s soft power influence. Carr bristles at this characterisation, saying his think tank is no different to similar ones set up by the United States.

Senior figures in the parliamentary Labor Party would like to see a more nuanced approach to the US–China arm wrestle for dominance than Carr has been espousing. The Victorian Right jokes that their interstate counterpart has become the Chinese faction of the party and that a more realistic appraisal of Jinping is needed as China’s growing wealth and military modernisation gathers pace.

But this is not to say there was any split over the need for Dastyari to fall on his sword. He was encouraged to do so by Shorten, but also by senior figures in his own state faction. The defence of Dastyari offered by the NSW Right’s Tony Burke and the Left’s Anthony Albanese was not at odds with the view that his situation had become unsustainable. They could also see that the media and the government had generated a Salem-style witch-hunt.

Vindication of this judgement came on Wednesday. Even though Dastyari had quit, The Daily Telegraph ran its next damaging “scoop” against him. This one was as flimsy as the other follow-ups to the original Fairfax story. It claimed the senator gave a pro-China speech in the senate critical of Bishop’s China policy after he attended a lunch where a Chinese donor gave Labor $500. An opposition backbench senator should not have a different view to the government in our multi-party democracy? It had become that absurd.

We can only hope that with the Bennelong byelection out of the way sanity will return. But don’t count on it if there is a huge swing or Keneally wins, and Bill Shorten takes that step closer to the prime ministership.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2017 as "Putting away the good China".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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