The Politics    Thursday, September 12, 2019

In Liu of a defence

By Russell Marks

In Liu of a defence

Member for Chisholm Gladys Liu and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

When Bolt asks if Beijing’s writing Morrison’s speeches, the PM has a problem

Scott Morrison today attempted to dismiss growing concerns over Member for Chisholm Gladys Liu as partisan fire directed by the Labor Opposition at a “clumsy interview” she gave to Andrew Bolt on Tuesday. But given its national security implications, this is one matter the prime minister is unlikely to skate over.

Certainly, much of the media commentary since has exaggerated Liu’s position on what the Permanent Court of Arbitration and Australia describe as China’s theft of the South China Sea. Asked by Bolt, “Do you support the [Australian] government’s position, that China stealing the South China Sea is unlawful?”, Liu replied: “Well, my understanding is [that] a lot of countries [are] trying to claim ownership… sovereignty of the South China Sea because of various reasons, and my position is with the Australian government.”

Much more concerning was the consistency with which Liu claimed that she could not recall her various reported connections with organisations closely linked with the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, one of whose tasks, according to Professor Clive Hamilton, is “to co-opt and guide ethnic Chinese people living abroad so they act in the interests of the Communist Party”. (The publication of Hamilton’s book, Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, was delayed in 2017 after its publishers expressed fears of Chinese retaliation.) Liu’s memory returned the following morning in the form of a written statement apparently prepared by Morrison’s office, which confirmed her honorary membership, between 2003 and 2015, of a CCP-linked association.

In damage control yesterday and today, the government has tried to reduce the issue to one of partisan politics and racial slurs. In a press conference this morning, the prime minister suggested that Labor’s pursuit of the matter was “an insult to every Chinese Australian in this country”. That provoked an extraordinary intervention by Bolt himself, who asked: “are the dictators in Beijing now writing Morrison’s lines?”

There are many reasons Morrison wants this to go away. Liu won Chisholm by the barest of margins – 1090 votes – in May. By asking whether Liu is a “fit and proper person” to sit in Canberra, Labor raises the spectre of the Constitution’s section 44 – which is, after all, supposed to guard against divided loyalties. Should Labor force Liu’s exit and triumph in a byelection, the Coalition’s majority would be reduced to a very precarious one.

This issue goes well beyond mere partisan politics, however. In February 2018, ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis reportedly advised the then PM, Malcolm Turnbull, to avoid a “meet and greet” organised by Liu because of his concerns about her guest list. Two state Liberal parliamentarians and a former senior staffer are reported to have told the Herald Sun [$] that the party had been warned in 2018 about pre-selecting her. Penny Wong and Mark Dreyfus are asking whether Morrison and his party “put winning marginal seats ahead of Australia’s national security”.

All five crossbenchers present this morning (Bob Katter was absent) voted in favour of Labor’s motion to suspend standing orders in order to force some kind explanation from Liu or Morrison, with the Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie urging the government against using its numbers to run “a protection racket”.

The uncomfortable reality is that many Australian federal and state politicians have been courted by CCP-linked associations. Former treasurer Chris Bowen took [$] a CCP-funded trip to China in April 2015. ICAC is currently investigating allegations that NSW Labor accepted $100,000 in an Aldi bag from a banned Chinese donor. Bob Hawke made a fortune as a lobbyist for Chinese companies during the decade-long negotiations for the China–Australia Free Trade Agreement, finalised in 2014. Peter Dutton and Bill Shorten are among the many current and former politicians who have met with or received donations from individuals with alleged CCP links.

The national security implications – Duncan Lewis said last week that China’s influence represents an “existential threat” to Australia, more serious than terrorism or cybersecurity – mean the perennial issue of political donations must be revisited. More than that, there are calls today for a full review of how Australia engages with China.

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Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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