I wouldn't hang a dog on the evidence so far assembled in support of the proposition that Gladys Liu, Liberal MP for Chisholm, is an active agent of the Chinese government, engaged in nefarious and illegal activities against Australia.
On the other hand, one cannot help cynically feeling that were Ms Liu to be accused in China, with similar evidence to that presented here of being an agent for Australia, she would probably be summarily convicted and shot.
Indeed the same might happen under the new and almost completely unaccountable Australian criminal law of espionage these days. Our only protections against that are the competence, integrity and independence of the AFP, the slight chance of finding a judge unlikely to be overawed by self-serving claims of national security and the thought that the government, in considering the public interest aspects of the case, would do so in that quasi-judicial way that law and custom once (until about 2015) required rather than as a partisan of a political interest. Forgive me if I wonder if what we have is that ASIO can achieve its mission: "to protect Australians and their interests [including Woodside Petroleum's?] from serious threats to their security.''
Ms Liu is, so far, the only Australian of Chinese extraction constitutionally required to repudiate any Chinese nationality she has, if any, because the constitution forbids dual citizenship for members of, or candidates for federal parliament. But she is perfectly entitled to take great pride and pleasure in the achievements of the Chinese state, if she wants to, to argue its merits, or to defend it against charges that it is some sort of present or long-term enemy of Australia's interests.
The case of Ms Liu, on the basis of what we know, differs significantly from that of the disgraced Sam Dastyari. Senator Dastyari gave every appearance of being bought, or rented, by the Chinese government. He was getting bills paid. it could be perceived that there may be a close relationship with money and his willingness to adopt and promote policies about China at odds with official party policy. He had certainly swallowed the small hook, as ASIO puts it, and looked as if he was now being gaffed.
Ms Liu, by contrast, was active in the Chinese community. She is perfectly entitled, as is any Australian citizen, of Chinese extraction or otherwise, to join organisations promoting trade or intercourse with China, pushing China's interpretation of its rights and interests. The fact that such organisations have some sort of official Chinese status or recognition might suggest caution, at least while being a member of parliament, but it is not illegal, immoral, or perhaps even wrong. There are many members of parliament who belong to at least semi-official amity organisations, whether of nations generally regarded as our friends, such as the United States or Israel, or less than terrific friends, such as Russia, or Egypt or Malaysia. Many of these are not associated by birth with such nations, though sometimes, the cynic will notice, that the reason for membership of such groups may owe more to the propensity of the nation to offer free travel and accommodation, or the number of its emigres in one's electorate.
My mention of Israel was deliberate, even if I will wonder over the next few days whether it was worth it. Israel has a passionate and powerful lobby in Australia, including from Australians of Jewish extraction, and, in terms of its influence and success in Australian politics, one much greater than the combined political influence of Australians from Muslim nations in the area.
The power and influence of the so-called Israeli lobby operates in both major political parties, and is reflected in donations, often bipartisan, which have caused a political sensitivity to Israel's interests which is probably out of proportion to actual electoral clout. Some Australians have played active parts in Israeli politics, even with extremist parties.
Some passionate supporters of Israel have a tendency to accuse any critic of Israel's policies, say towards the human rights of Palestinians, as "anti-Semitic", by which they mean opposed to Judaism or to people who are ethnically, or religiously or culturally Jewish. But not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic: indeed if it was one would wonder how Israeli newspapers, which span a wild divergence of views critical of their politicians, survive.
The level of support for Israel in the west, particularly in America and Australia, has led some to suggest that Australian or American Jews have a loyalty to Israel as great as or greater than to their own country. This was once suggested of Catholics - as people whose minds and loyalties were wound up in the Vatican. It is also sometimes suggested of the great Chinese diaspora, many separated by generations from the Chinese mainland, but still intensely interested in its progress. Often, indeed, even when they are strongly anti-communist, or whose background is as effective refugees from that country.
Given the extent of commerce effectively controlled by the state, or powerful politicians and interest groups, it may be that economic espionage is more significant for Chinese spies than for Australian ones.
In one sense that pleasure and pride in the achievement of the country of one's forefathers or foremothers may be little more than Italo-Australian excitement at winning the world cup, or the mysterious incapacity of Kiwis to transfer their rugby loyalties even after they switch nationalities and allegiances. But there are several difference that matter.
China is a highly authoritarian country, which seeks to closely monitor and control its people, including, often, people in the Chinese diaspora who owe it no allegiance at all. It is often remarked of overseas espionage of authoritarian countries that much more time, expense and effort is devoted to monitoring émigré populations in other nations than to efforts to discover military and industrial secrets. That may be, of course, because it is from such populations (or now, the vast numbers of students living here) that the real leg work of acquiring military or industrial secrets will come. Cooperation from the diaspora, or from students may be blackmailed, coerced, or paid for, but the strongest pull will usually be from some claim that one owes it to China, or that the passage of information will not really harm Australia.
Extensive Chinese espionage and counter-intelligence work in Australia is a fact, as is extensive industrial and economic espionage, including the use of state intelligence to get intellectual property for the benefit of particular Chinese companies, or to improve their hand in negotiations. (Very much like the bugging of the East Timorese cabinet room benefiting Woodside Petroleum. Or the research and alleged bribery some Rio Tinto negotiators did with Chinese steel mill executives a decade or so ago in the course of making deals for the supply of iron ore.) Given the extent of commerce effectively controlled by the state, or powerful politicians and interest groups, including the defence forces, it may be that economic espionage is more significant for Chinese spies than for Australian ones.
Moreover, Australians were long brought up to see "red China" as a potential enemy - indeed one wanting or likely to invade us. That's in part a product of Cold War rhetoric about the downward thrust of communism, but also of older fears of Asiatic hordes, unfair competition from cheap labour and notions of Australia being a haven only for white men and women. China has not moved beyond its long-term boundaries in any significant way for centuries. Skirmishes with India in 1961, the takeover of Tibet, border squabbles with Vietnam after 1975, or, during World War II, military activity in Burma were not about claiming new territory. While China's claim to islands in the South China seas is contested, it is of very long standing.
The level of bellicosity of China's military and political leaders about matters such as the re-integration of Taiwan or the need for the United States to take steps back in Asia goes up and down. China is investing in an ocean-going navy. That said, the number of actually aggressive military actions by China towards either its neighbours, or the US, or us, is fairly limited, and difficult to categorise as menacing. The militarisation of several contested islands was not welcome, but the US has many more forward bases looking at China than the other way around.
For all of that, China is a significant customer with whom we have essentially cordial trading relationships, the stronger because of the stability and proximity of both countries. There's a lot of pragmatism on both sides, particularly at the commercial level. China expresses clear exasperation with what it perceives as an Australian inability to recognise that its interests in Asia and the world are different from America's. It repeatedly warns us that our habit of moving in lockstep may sooner or later do us great damage, or invite the sort of economic retaliation (to what China sees, reasonably as protectionist provocations) that the US is getting.
With all that in mind, Gladys Liu, the first Australia federal MP of Chinese extraction has the capacity to reach out to a Chinese constituency both here and abroad. She has belonged to an array of organisations that are effectively Chinese communist party fronts, but that is hardly surprising given the critical role that the CCP has in almost all politics and economics in China, and, from China, in its dealings with other countries. It would be a rare Chinese businessman or woman dealing with Australians here (even about buying real estate, or establishing bolt-hole businesses here) who had not seen the advantage of belonging to the primary governing institution of China, an organisation of about 91 million members. Likewise it would be rare to find a trade, or industry, or cultural body, however industrious and effective, or however banal and ineffective that was not ultimately controllable by the CCP.
The Liu case offered parallels with the NSW ICAC inquiry into large amounts of loose cash being handed over to the ALP, in a manner that has blunted Scott Morrison's capacity to talk of how Labor is being corrupted by the brown paper - or Aldi - bag.
But not everyone in a group - official or semi-official - trying to promote business and cultural relations, including tourism, even when they are party members, must be counted as involved in a monolithic conspiracy to establish hegemony over Australia. We have such groups too - semi-official ones which are supposed to achieve better outcomes for Australian business or cultural relations. They may share business information, but they are not intelligence organisations. Or fabulously effective in advancing our interest. I am sure Ms Liu is a clever businesswoman in her way, but she has not seemed so fast on her feet, either in English or Chinese, to be typecast as a sinister threat to our way of life.
That said, her future in politics involves much more than brazening it out. She's a member of the Liberal Party, with a voice in its councils. (She's actually a member of the Dutton faction, indeed of the same group that sees a Chinese invasion as being about as certain as the apocalypse, indeed perhaps the same thing, which suggests that she should focus on subversion close by her, rather than on the world at large, if that is her wont).
The Liberals may not strictly enforce a party line on relations with China - indeed the Prime Minister and other senior ministers cater to virtually all views. But they tend to demand that backbenchers not publicly add much to the chatter, and that they do not embarrass the government with their interventions.
She would also be wise to take advice from ASIO about people and organisations it regards as real spooks, rather than folk wandering around promoting the idea of trade, or arguing, mostly to familiar audiences, China's perspective on things. We are not all so silly that we do not recognise propaganda when we see it - heaven knows we get deluged with US alliance propaganda, mostly equally tendentious.
The vast quantities of cash splashing around are not so much suggestive of an intelligence operation as the ordinary efforts of businessmen and women in a corrupt country trying to buy favours however they can get them. That has long been standard practice in China, and in quite a few other countries, including neighbouring ones, with whom these business folk deal. It is becoming depressingly obvious that Australia is not much different, in corruption terms, from many such countries, and that the Chinese money is as much tribute as direct payment for specific favours.
This week we saw an admission from the AFP that they could not progress an inquiry into a case of Australian bribery in Cambodia. And the government again showing its want of enthusiasm for a competent and powerful anti-corruption body. This is not merely a matter of covering Ms Liu's bum, or the bums of Chinese spies or businessfolk who seem to be able to operate here with much the same impunity as in Cambodia. It is a matter of protecting the politicians, their party organisations, and, ultimately, perhaps, what might be called the Australian way of political life.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times