26 Nov 2019
Political parties must take foreign interference seriously
Nick Zhao may or may not have been approached by Chinese state operatives, offering $1 million for this Liberal Party member to run for Parliament. He’s dead and a coronial inquiry is under way.
The new ASIO head, Mike Burgess, says, "Australians can be reassured that ASIO was previously aware of matters that have been reported today, and has been actively investigating them." That’s good, if sobering, news because it tells us the allegations are credible.
And Wang Liqiang may or may not be a Chinese intelligence operative who worked for the authoritarian Communist Party state to compromise and disrupt pro-democracy students and groups in Hong Kong, and who ran similar activities to disrupt Taiwan’s democracy. Wang is also reported to have said spies from Beijing were "operating with impunity in Australia".
On Zhao, details are sketchier, so we’ll need to hear the results of the coronial inquiry and ASIO’s investigation.
With Wang, however, his account of the Chinese state’s covert work to interfere in Hong Kong and in Taiwanese and Australian politics came with reams of public detail. What he has already said aligns well with things we know about China's intelligence work.
What’s new is he’s added important details on individuals, companies, places, times and activities, which can be followed up. For our counter-espionage agency, ASIO, this will provide leads and seeds to understand and disrupt this covert and corrupting Chinese state activity.
Wang's claims are likely to be credible, especially given the Chinese embassy’s rapid denunciation of him, citing a hastily issued statement from Shanghai police, after his allegations were first reported. There’s no record of Wang's supposed conviction before then, and this is just the kind of cover-up you’d expect when a Chinese intelligence operation is compromised.
What does all this mean? Put bluntly, it shows outgoing ASIO boss Duncan Lewis was spot on in September when he said terrorism had plateaued as a threat, but foreign interference was "on a growth path". He observed at the time: "Unlike the immediacy of terrorism incidents, the harm from acts of espionage may not be present for years, even decades, after the activity has occurred. These sorts of activities are typically quiet, insidious and have a long tail."
That’s an insight our political leaders and the broader Australian public need to take to heart.
Let’s suppose the plan to get Zhao into Federal Parliament was real and had worked. He would have been a Liberal backbencher, working diligently on constituency issues and showing his potential. Two or three elections from now, he could have aspired to an outer ministry job and later, perhaps, higher things.
An ability to bring in plenty of cash to the party over that time, no doubt with help from his Chinese government handlers, wouldn’t have hurt. That’s the kind of "long tail" damage Lewis was talking about.
Every Australian political party now needs to take the threat of Chinese covert interference in our politics seriously and work with government agencies to reduce the prospects that our public debate and our parliamentary decision-making will be compromised by Chinese state interests.
It’s not undemocratic for the Greens, Liberals, Labor and Nationals to use the knowledge and expertise of Australia’s security agencies.
It’s not undemocratic for the Greens, the Liberals, Labor and the Nationals to take advantage of the knowledge and expertise of Australia’s national security agencies. In fact, in the light of well-organised and lavishly funded interference from President Xi Jinping’s powerful authoritarian state, it’s essential to protect the vibrancy and independence of our political system.
In the heat of talk about Zhao and Wang, it’s also worth noting that our Australian Chinese community is not even the most likely place to look for long-term cultivation of political figures.
It’s almost routine for former politicians and senior civil servants engaged in our current public debates on China to be involved in advisory work or sponsorship from Chinese entities. Many of these entities will be harmless but some, no doubt, will have close links to Chinese party institutions that these public voices and the Australian people need to understand, not dismiss.
Remember it was the scandal around Labor’s Sam Dastyari - not a Chinese Australian - that crystallised a series of events ending in the new foreign interests transparency law passing parliament with a thumping bipartisan majority in August 2018. That law doesn’t yet cover politicians and their staff - a glaring gap that must now be closed.
Finance Minister Matthias Corman was right to say it would be "getting a bit ahead of ourselves" to suggest the government complain to the Chinese government over the allegations about Zhao.
Refreshingly, he went on to say: "[But] issues will arise that need to be dealt with, and where there is bad and inappropriate conduct, we will call that out and seek to have that addressed." He also said that ASIO’s investigation needs to take its proper and orderly course.
Unlike the case of Chinese state hacking into our Parliament and three major political parties earlier this year, though, once the investigation is complete ASIO's Burgess needs to take the same approach he took as head of the Australian Signals Directorate and come out of the shadows with the investigation’s results.
That would be best done with him sitting in a booth in Parliament while the Prime Minister or Minister for Home Affairs makes a public statement on the topic.
The sensitive and corrosive issue of Chinese state interference in our democracy needs to be handled in a calm and orderly way. But that calmness and order needs to be accompanied by honesty and openness with the Australian people.