With the dramatic Four Corners program aired on June 5 on the ABC, it is clear that Chinese billionaires with close links to those in power in China have been making large donations to both Labor and Liberal parties at the federal and state level. Days beforehand, the head of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Duncan Lewis, warned parliamentarians that espionage and interference by China are occurring in Australia on an unprecedented scale. He stated that the targets for this include universities, student and community groups, the local Chinese language media, and some of our politicians.1
This interference often comes in the form of donations, and some of these were from Dr Chau Chak Wing who donated $20 million for a building at the University of Technology Sydney. This sort of donation gets you access to the upper echelons of politics. On top of this Dr Chau has donated more than $4 million to the major parties over the last decade. While Dr Chau is an Australian citizen, in China he was a member of a communist party advisory group, and is suspected to be deeply connected to the Chinese Communist Party1.
Another Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo, who arrived in Australia in 2001 in near total obscurity, started to donate millions of dollars to health and education causes, and earned the praise of politicians from both major parties. Like Dr Chau, Mr Huang became a major political donor too, donating $770,000 to the Liberal Party before the 2013 election. He also donated $100,000 to Andrew Robb, then Trade Minister, as Robb signed off on the China Australia Free Trade Agreement. Mr Huang is also president of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China. This organisation supports China’s territorial claims over Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea1.
Two of Mr Huang’s associates on the Reunification Council are: Ernest Wong, who now, courtesy of the ALP, has a seat in the NSW Legislative Council, the upper house of the NSW Parliament; and Simon Zhou, who was given the normally unwinnable last place on Labor’s senate ticket in the 2016 federal election, a month after two of his business associates donated $60,000 to the ALP1.
In the lead up to the 2016 election, Mr Huang promised to donate $400,000 to the ALP, but when Stephen Conroy, Labor’s defence spokesman criticised Beijing’s activities on islands in the South China Sea, the donation was cancelled. A day later Mr Huang appeared with Sam Dastyari at a press conference at which the latter contradicted his party’s position. Mr Huang had previously given $5,000 to Dastyari to pay a legal bill. Mr Huang has applied for Australian citizenship, but his application has stalled, so Mr Huang has asked his political contacts for assistance. It was Dastyari who agreed to help1.
While the government has made noises about changing the rules to prevent donations to political parties from foreign interests, it is blaming GetUp for delays in legislating to ban foreign political donations. Special Minister of State Scott Ryan has said, nine months ago, that any changes to the rules must also consider the role of activist groups such as GetUp, which could act as a conduit for foreign donations2. From the time lag, it is clear that the government see no particular urgency in dealing with foreign influence, as long as the money keeps rolling in. They will be carefully calculating what effect any legislation will have on their bottom line, and the longer the wait, the better. In March 2017, a Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended foreign citizens and entities be banned from donating to registered political parties, and that it be extended to other political actors (e.g. GetUp). The ALP and the Greens have opposed the extension to other groups3.
This sounds like it is all progressing, but the problem is, if Dastyari’s intervention on behalf of Mr Huang is effective and the latter becomes an Australian citizen, then he and Dr Chau, who is already a citizen, will still be able to donate millions quite happily, continuing to allegedly buy influence in the Australian body politic on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. Is facilitating this buying of influence, treason? In Australian law, the act of treason is referred to as killing or doing bodily harm to a sovereign or heir apparent, or levying war or assisting anyone levying war or preparing to do so against the country, or engaged in armed hostilities against the Australian Defence Force. So, under that definition, it is not treason. However, if an Australian naval ship happened to pass by Chinese armed islands in the South China sea, and the Chinese fired on that ship, as political parties or politicians accepted money from China, they could be guilty of treason.
Under our current system, all political parties are corrupt4, but there is a very easy way to fix this problem, and that is to allow only individual Australian citizens to donate to political parties or other political actors, to limit any single donation to a maximum of $1,000, with an annual maximum of $5,000. All donations would be made public in real time, and no anonymity would be permitted. All election campaigns must be publicly funded. Anybody found to be trying to subvert this system would be liable to imprisonment. This will not happen unless we make it happen, because the corruption of political parties is so entrenched, it has become their modus operandi.