ASIO would vet Federal MPs as new allegations about Labor MPs aired
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ASIO would vet Federal MPs as new allegations about Labor MPs aired

Federal ministers would be subject to ASIO security vetting for the first time under a private members bill set to be introduced to parliament this week.

South Australian Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick is seeking to overturn a decades-long convention in Australia that ministers, assistant ministers and parliamentary secretaries – unlike their staff and public servants – are exempt from security checks before accessing classified government material.

Senator Rex Patrick.

Senator Rex Patrick.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Under Senator Patrick’s proposal, ASIO would do background checks on prospective ministers, and the Director General of Security would provide advice to the prime minister on any concerns that arose.

Importantly, the security services would not be able to veto ministerial appointments, which would be left to the prime minister’s discretion.

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In an explosive adjournment speech to the Senate on Tuesday night, Senator Patrick fleshed out the backdrop to his proposal and took aim at prominent Labor identities Sam Dastyari and Joel Fitzgibbon over unanswered questions about their ties to Chinese political donors.

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He referred to former Labor senator Sam Dastyari’s dealings with prominent Chinese political donors and his advocacy of China’s official position on the South China Sea as recent example of “largely secret relationships between Australian political figures and foreign and foreign-connected political donors”.

Senator Patrick, a former Royal Australian Navy submariner, also challenged Labor frontbencher Mr Fitzgibbon over his long friendship with Chinese businesswoman Helen Liu.

He revealed previously secret details of a 2011 affidavit sworn by the NSW MP in which he admitted writing several letters to prominent Chinese Communist Party officials in Ms Liu’s home province of Shandong between 1996 and 2005. Ms Liu had several business interests in Shandong at that time.

The affidavit contradicts answers Mr Fitzgibbon gave to senior press gallery journalist Chris Uhlmann last year in which he denied ever having written to any Chinese official or supporting Ms Liu's business affairs.

Senator Patrick said Mr Fitzgibbon's affidavit referred to him writing to the following Chinese officials over a nine-year period:

  • A 1999 letter to then Shandong’s Communist Party Chief, Wu Guanzheng. Mr Wu was appointed a full member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo that year and in 2002 became the head of the country’s anti-corruption agency.
Former Labor defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon

Former Labor defence minister Joel FitzgibbonCredit:Dominic Lorrimer

  • A 2005 letter to then Shandong vice governor Zhou Wenching and another letter in 2005 to Zhao Kezhi when he also was a Shandong vice governor. Mr Zhao is now China’s Minister for Public Security.
  •  A 2006 letter to senior Shandong Communist Party official Liu Wei.
  • A 1997 letter to the Immigration Section of the Australian embassy in Beijing.
  • A 2000 character reference for Jie Liu, who is believed to be a nephew of Helen Liu.

Senator Patrick called on Mr Fitzgibbon to explain the apparent contradiction in his denial of last year and the contents of his 2011 affidavit.

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He also said Mr Fitzgibbon should not be appointed a minister in a future Labor government until there was a full security investigation into his and his family's dealings with Ms Liu, who he admitted in 2009 when he was defence minister had paid for two trips to China in 2002 and 2005 that he had forgotten to declare.

The Age and Herald revealed last year that Ms Liu had deep financial and business ties to senior Chinese military intelligence officer, Liu Chaoying, at the same time as she was donating to Mr Fitzgibbon and Labor's election campaigns in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Ms Liu transferred $250,000 from her Australian company Wincopy in 1996 to an offshore company owned by Liu Chaoying, the daughter of China's then most senior naval officer. US officials at the time declared Liu Chaoying's company a front for Chinese intelligence efforts to influence Bill Clinton's 1996 US presidential campaign.

Senator Patrick referred to Canada in his speech, which shares a Westminster-style system of government similar to Australia’s, as a nation that had successfully implemented security checks on its federal ministers since 2008.

Sam Dastyrari's China links were only revealed by the media.

Sam Dastyrari's China links were only revealed by the media.Credit:Daniel Munoz

The checks, which involve assessments by Canada’s counter-intelligence agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canada Revenue Agency, are renewed every two years.

Under Senator Patrick's Bill, the security services would not be able to veto ministerial appointments, which would be left to the prime minister’s discretion.

"In the event that security background checks reveal an issue of security concern, the prime minister will be free to determine what steps might be required to resolve the matter," Senator Patrick's explanatory memorandum for his Ministers of State (Checks For Security Purposes) Bill says.

The ministerial background checks proposed by Senator Patrick would be of the same rigour applied to new ASIO recruits, requiring a whole of life background check and psychological evaluation as part of the "positive vetting" process.

With federal MPs already expressing diverse opinions on the shape of a National Integrity Commission, Senator Patrick's move to introduce ASIO checks is expected to fuel further debate on the extent of external scrutiny on the lives of senior politicians.

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But Senator Patrick is confident the Australian public would regard the introduction of security checks for ministers as a reasonable act given the long-standing requirements for their staff and public servants.

"It is highly anomalous that Australian Ministers of State … who have access to the some of the most sensitive and highly classified government information, should be exempt from a mandatory security background checking process," his explanatory memorandum states.

“Regrettably it cannot be assumed that persons appointed as Ministers will always be free of characteristics, activities, associations, connections or obligations that may compromise, or risk compromise of national security within the executive government.”

Senator Patrick believes his ministerial security check proposal compliments Australia’s new Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, which comes into effect next week.

The scheme, prompted by media revelations, mainly about Chinese government influencing campaigns, will make it compulsory for persons and entities undertaking acting on behalf of foreign principals to be registered or face criminal sanctions.

Under his proposed laws, which are expected to be referred to a parliamentary committee, information gathered during the course of background checks that was not relevant to security concerns would not be included in reports to the prime minister.

Richard Baker is one of Australia's most experienced and decorated investigative journalists, with 12 years in The Age newspaper's investigative unit. He has many times been the recipient of Australia's major journalism awards, including multiple Walkleys, the Melbourne Press Club's gold quill and more than a dozen other quills, a Kennedy award and the George Munster prize for independent journalism. Together with colleague Nick McKenzie, Richard has broken major international and national corruption scandals. He also writes regularly on politics, business, crime, sports affairs, defence and intelligence and social affairs. In 2016, he created and co-hosted the awarding winning six part podcast series, Phoebe's Fall.

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