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Something's rotten in Australia: foreign money and our politicians

By Peter West - posted Monday, 19 June 2017


On 15 June, 2017 the Chinese Ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jinye, attacked reports about Chinese money being used to influence Australian politicians. The reports appeared especially in the ABC TV program "Four Corners" and in a series in The Sydney Morning Herald. The Ambassador indicated the coverage was 'politically motivated' and 'made up out of thin air'.

'Apparently, those people are not willing to see the continued growth of the friendly cooperation between our two countries and two peoples.

'Their main purpose, as I see it, is to instigate China panic." [italics added].

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This habit of attacking someone making bold statements by accusing them of stirring up a 'panic' has been around for some time. An amusing article by Scott Bonn says it suits powerful people to stir up the masses into hysteria by producing 'folk devils'. Once there were moral panics about naughty books like Lady Chatterley's Lover, or Lolita, which might corrupt our youth and make them think about sex. (How dreadful that would be!) If we say that boys' educational needs must be addressed, we are accused of a 'moral panic about boys'. If we make statements about the need for better advice for men contemplating suicide, accusations are made of a 'panic about men's rights and privileges', and universities give men students a list of their privileges to tick off. Once there were, indeed, fears about Red China and its influence on neighbouring countries. I recall advertisements in which Australian Governments used fear of Chinese Communism to defend the supposed need for conscription in the 1960s. The 'Red Tide' is advancing: beware! And, as we have just seen, complaints about Chinese buying up property or influencing politicians are met with accusations of Sinophobia and racism. Janna Thompson has argued that the words racist and racism are easy to throw around because their meaning is fuzzy and ill-defined. The accusation that something is 'political' is another old trick used by many politicians to try to demolish someone else's argument. "I'm public-spirited; you are partial; he is political": a kind of irregular adjective, as it were.

Let's assume that the ambassador has been told what to say, as most ambassadors are, and try to spell out some of the important strands of the argument.

First: are our politicians being swayed by large political donationsand jobs from foreign firms? The arguments have been rammed home pretty convincingly by the "Four Corners" program. This has been followed up in the apparently endless cases of political donations coming out this June in the Sydney Morning Herald. The case of Andrew Robb looks quite complex and not straight-forward. But it smells. In other words, it would fail the pub test of what ordinary Australians think. For someone to put forward all his arguments as a Cabinet Minister and MP who is expected to look after the public interest; and then immediately take up a job in a Chinese firm designed to make a profit looks very questionable. Let alone the apparent links the firm has to the Chinese Communist Party. Apparently the Chinese Communist Party has ceased to be a folk devil of fear and loathing and become something we just accept, like Weet-Bix for breakfast. When does someone like Robb cease to have a whole pile of top-level contacts in government, and take up a position in a firm making a profit?

These problems sit on both sides of the political fence. An outstanding case is Labor's Senator Sam Dastyari. The "Four Corners" program has claimed that Dastyari contradicted Labor policy on the so-called South China Sea a day after Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo threatened to withdraw a promised $400,000 donation to the party. The program, by Nick McKenzie and others, claims Huang objected to comments made by Senator Conroy that Australia's defence force should be able to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the area. Readers who can find a map will see that this 'South China Sea', a disputed area around the Spratly Islands, is nowhere near China, and that at this rate Australia itself will be called South China. But as usual, those who control the language control the argument.

Once Huang made his threat very plain, Dastaryi announced that Australia must not interfere in China's activities in this area. Yet Dastyari denied he had split with the party on the policy, saying it wasn't his fault the way the U-turn was reported. The chairman of one of the donor groups implicated in the fracas has strongly objected to the idea that donations were linked to policy outcomes. How could anyone suggest that these public-spirited men might want to make Members of Parliament change their policies! Surely they are just giving their money away, from the goodness of their hearts.

The Dastaryi affair has been ridiculed by the Liberal Party. This is like two kids fighting and all we get is "He started it". Labor and Liberal are both to blame. Well might Australians say, 'a plague on both your houses'.

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Second, will we have an inquiry into these matters? One of our smartest commentators made her usual astute assessment. Michelle Grattan commented tartly that both sides of politics have been scurrying around to put on a show so they can "be seen to be acting". Politicians have been making airy promises of one kind or another to fix the issue, but public inquiries are not always effective at uncovering corruption. A full-scale public inquiry will usually be avoided by those in power, who always wish to avoid opening up nasty cans of worms. A proper inquiry threatens too many cosy mates doing deals, to the exclusion of those of us without wads of cash to give away. Many useful points are made in the program "Yes, Minister". John Warhurst argues convincingly that what we need is clearly not some half-hearted attempt to paper over the cracks. We need a thorough investigation of what has been going on and what effects all these cosy deals and donations have made on public policy. As Warhurst says, foreign powers should not have the benefit of high-level insider advice. Labor and Liberal are both at fault. Perhaps the stink on both sides helps explain in part the appeal of Pauline Hanson and the many other groups attempting to get support by pretending to be different and apolitical.

In public life, many significant issues are put in the 'too hard' basket. Academics chatter about the big issues that seem important – but often, important mainly to them. The media likewise natter too often about matters that seem completely trivial. Are we getting too fat? Does this movie convey the right attitudes? Are men sitting on trains and spreading their legs? And as I've argued, the media try to beat each other in racing to the bottom of any standards that are still left alive, if any. SBS and the ABC think they are far better than the commercial media. And they are, sometimes. So important issues fade away.

The issues raised about foreign control must concern all Australians. Older Aussies despair. What hope is there at all, unless the younger generation pick up these issues and demand answers? And keep on asking, until our leaders listen? Our national security and important trading routes around the Spratly Islands tell us that we must demand answers. No wonder the Chinese want us to sit still, be quiet and stop talking about all this.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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