The Greens have accused Chinese president Xi Jinping of "casing the joint" on a visit to Tasmania as conservative Senator Cory Bernadi suggested Chinese "bags of cash" are likely being handed out to politicians on a bigger scale than is known.
"Let us not gild the lily," Senator Bernadi told the Senate on Monday evening. "People don't give you $100,000 cash in a bag, after making billions as recipients of largesse of the Communist Party of China, and throw it into Australian politics for no reason. They do it for a reason. It is to gain access or influence, and we've seen just how damning that can be on individuals. We've had some in this place. There are many more, I suspect, around the rest of the country."
He was speaking as the political left and right found themselves in furious agreement on the need for an inquiry into Australia's relationship with China - an inquiry pushed by crossbench Senator Rex Patrick, but rejected again this week by Labor and Liberal.
Senator Patrick said an inquiry could look at China's growing influence in the Pacific, including close neighbours Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, Australia's export dependence on China, Chinese investment in agriculture, mining and critical infrastructure, the state and territory governments' deals with China, and the role of Chinese- controlled organisations on university campuses.
It could look at how Australia and China could forge a "respectful and advantageous" relationship while being alert to where caution was needed.
This week was Senator Patrick's third attempt to set up an inquiry after Labor reneged on its plan to co-sponsor an inquiry. Senator Patrick said Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton had since raised concern about Chinese political and university influence, computer hacking and "theft of intellectual property".
"I would add that the last matter, computer hacking, has included not only Australian government agencies, political parties and the Australian National University but also the computer system of this parliament," Senator Patrick said.
He also pointed to the government's refusal to brief parliamentarians on the China relationship.
Senator Bernardi said an inquiry could establish the facts about how China was impacting Australia's economy.
"How many people are coming here and using the soft student visa program as a backdoor way of gaining permanent residency? How are they influencing our educational institutions to revise history and gloss over the 100 million or so deaths that were part of the revolution?" he said.
"... We're hearing reports about people being threatened and intimidated and our businesses being influenced. Are those reports true?"
Senator McKim said the Chinese president had visited Tasmania in 2014, alongside overwhelming numbers of supporting students in chartered jets, not "to taste our pinot noir" but "to case the joint".
"So it's turned out. I'm extremely concerned about [Chinese Communist party] influence in Tasmania. I'm very concerned about the level of CCP investment into Tasmania and I'm extremely concerned that our state government has not yet come to grips with the challenges that this represents."
He blasted the communist party as a totalitarian regime engaged in cultural genocide on the Uygur people, running a court system that was "closer to a conviction factory than it is to a genuine justice system", attempting to destroy the Tibetan culture, and now perpetrating "brutality" against protestors and journalists in Hong Kong.
The inquiry was supported by the entire crossbench, but Labor knocked it back. In September Senator Katie Gallagher said Labor wanted a briefing instead from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Office of National Intelligence. That briefing has since been denied by the government, but Labor continued to oppose an inquiry this week.
For the government, Tasmanian Senator Richard Colbeck said Australia's relationship with China was a priority and the government rejected "any attempts to politicise this".
China has hit back strongly over the past month at government ministers, describing Mr Dutton's comments as "shocking", "baseless" and a "malicious slur" which damaged the relationship. When Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Australia would continue to speak out on China's human rights abuses, the Chinese embassy accused her of showing "total disregard of facts to serve political purposes", and said it had "lodged stern representations to the Australian side" about her "inappropriate" conduct.
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