Hewson's View | Getting to the bottom of foreign political influence

There is growing concern about foreign, especially Chinese, influence in our economy and political system. In recent weeks we have had warnings from the Head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade about mounting influence at our universities, and from ASIO in relation to political influence.

Concern has also been expressed about Chinese purchases of key infrastructure assets, such as the ports of Darwin and Newcastle, major energy and other companies and, of course, the role of Chinese money in generating our overheated property markets, especially residential property. There has also been some focus on ex-government ministers quickly accepting positions with significant Chinese companies post-politics.

This week, Sam Dastyari was forced to resign from the Senate because of his links to key Chinese businessmen, related ALP fundraising activities, and for representing “Chinese interests” inconsistent with ALP policy and our national interests. The Turnbull Government also introduced legislation to restrict foreign political donations, although the major parties have increasingly sought, and relied on, foreign donations to fund their activities and campaigns.

WAVE GOODBYE: Former Senator Sam Dastyari was forced to resign this week due to his connections with Chinese powerbrokers. Photo: Kate Geraghty.

WAVE GOODBYE: Former Senator Sam Dastyari was forced to resign this week due to his connections with Chinese powerbrokers. Photo: Kate Geraghty.

However, there can be no doubt about the significance of China to Australia, as our largest trading partner, and as a major source of investment, tourism, students, and immigration. To a large extent it was trade with China that saved us from a recession after the global financial crisis.

The concern is that in all this we have gone too far, too fast, and, given the somewhat covert or insidious way the Chinese operate, we have allowed “them” to gain undue significance and influence. Some draw parallels with their activities in the South China Sea, seizing territory, quickly building military bases, and then seeking to control rights of navigation and fly-over, all while the world has simply complained, but have been somewhat powerless to do anything about it.

A recent concern has been the suggestion that a Chinese state-owned engineering group may step up to fund the Adani Carmichael coal project, when some 27 global banks, including our Big 4, have refused to do so, and when the Queensland Premier has said that she won’t sign off on concessional finance from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, and recently won an election on that position.

The issue of Chinese influence has also been a factor in this weekend’s Bennelong by-election, as nearly 20 percent of voters are of Chinese origin, the most significant of any electorate. Although it is naïve to imagine that the Chinese Australians vote in a block, their vote could collectively be determinant in the outcome, and in influencing the future of the Turnbull Government.

Essentially, successive governments have failed to develop an adequate and effective “China Policy”, allowing the relationship to essentially develop at their pace and direction. They have also failed on specific issues such as campaign funding more generally, which is in desperate need of a clean up, where foreign donations are just one, but an important, component.

The Dastyari experience should be instructive. Before entering politics, Sam was essentially a “bag man” for the ALP in NSW, an activity it seems he was able to elevate to a much higher plane as a senator.

All major parties have chased foreign donations, begging the question as to what deals were done, what commitments were made, and what influence was peddled?

 – John Hewson

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