26 Nov MPs demand tougher defence against spies
David Crowe and Anthony Galloway – Sydney Morning Herald – Tuesday 26 November
Federal politicians are demanding an immediate escalation of Australian safeguards against foreign interference in an explosive debate over claims the Chinese government tried to install an agent in Parliament.
The bipartisan demands include tighter scrutiny of election candidates to prevent the Chinese Communist Party using its agents to fund campaigns and secure victory for future MPs with debts to Beijing.
While Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared the government had never been more determined to prevent foreign interference, Liberal and Labor MPs named the selection of candidates as a key weakness.
The calls came after The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed an alleged plot by a suspected Chinese intelligence group to offer a million dollars to Liberal Party member Bo “Nick” Zhao to run for the a seat in Melbourne’s easterm suburbs.
Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching said the revelation was “deeply, deeply concerning” and showed the need for more transparency about the sources of finance for candidates and their membership of groups linked to foreign powers.
“I think alarm bells should go off if someone is a member of an organisation that is related to another country, whatever it might be,” she said.
Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, a former international development minister, called for a tougher approach to Beijing after the disclosures about the scale of its political activities in Australia.
“The Coalition government needs to hold Beijing to account on the rule of law in all respects, standing up for our values as a democracy and not being spooked by any behind-the-scenes economic blackmail,” she said.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells, who warned about Chinese influence in early 2017, said Australian politics had been subject to subversion for decades but more checks were needed in addition to compliance with the citizenship provisions of the Constitution.
“Recent changes to citizenship rules and compliance with Section 44 of the Constitution are a start. Greater scrutiny is required by political parties,” she said.
Victorian Liberal senator James Paterson, who was denied a Chinese visa this month to join a study tour to Beijing, said the interference in Australian affairs was “worse than I feared” given the revelations about Mr Zhao.
“I think Australia just has to be really assertive about our sovereignty here,” Mr Paterson said.
“There can be no excuse for being weak or insecure about securing our national interest just because someone is a significant trading partner.”
Mr Zhao told the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation about one year ago of the approach to have him installed in Parliament. He was found dead in a Melbourne motel room in March.
Asked about allegations that China had tried to plant a spy inside the Australian parliament Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: “China follows the principal of non-interference in others affairs…
“For quite some time, certain Australian politicians, media outlets … have demonstrated some kind of nervousness in China-related issues and have been fabricating so-called Chinese espionage and infiltration in Australia … lies are lies no matter how many times they are repeated,” he said.
Mr Morrison assured Australians that laws were in place to punish foreign interference.
“What I can say is Australia is not naive to the threats that it faces more broadly,” he said.
“And that’s why we strengthened the laws, that’s why we increased the resources, that’s why we established the Department of Home Affairs to bring together all of this in a single portfolio.
“I can assure Australians that under our government, the resources have never been stronger, the laws have never been tougher, and the government has never been more determined to keep Australians free and safe from foreign interference.”
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said all MPs should be able to seek briefings from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Office of National Intelligence.
“It is undeniably in the national interest for parliamentarians to be well briefed on vital issues such as the China relationship and the risk of foreign interference,” Senator Wong said.
Labor MP Julian Hill, deputy chair of the Foreign Affairs and Aid Sub-Committee, backed the suggestion.
“At the very least the senior relative committees – foreign affairs and intelligence committees – should be able to get honest appraisals, not idiot government talking points or quotes from published documents.”
Some MPs were reluctant to comment on the potential defector Wang Liqiang, who told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age he was seeking political asylum in Australia after arriving on a tourist visa to escape his past as a Chinese spy.
Liberal MP Andrew Hastie over the weekend called for Australian authorities to grant Mr Wang asylum.
While many MPs said it was up to security agencies to rule on his application for protection, Senator Kitching said he should be given protection, comparing the case to the defection of Russian intelligence official Vladimir Petrov and his wife Evdokia in 1954, both of whom were granted protection and new identities to remain in Australia.
The revelations about Mr Zhao, and the offer to fund a campaign for him to win a parliamentary seat, renewed a dispute over Liberal MP Gladys Liu, who won the seat of Chisholm at the May election.
Ms Liu was forced to conduct an audit of her membership of organisations linked to the Chinese Communist Party in recent months after questions in Parliament over her loyalties.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann rejected questions about Ms Liu but others said she should answer questions about the funding of her campaign and her membership of United Front groups linked to Beijing.
Senator Kitching said if Ms Liu “truly valued free and fair elections … she would make a statement to the Parliament, she would disclose how she came to be donating $100,000 to her campaign”.
Senator Kitching said it was not about targeting Chinse Australians who added a lot of value to Australian society over more than 100 years.
“This is about ensuring our Parliament can operate in the way Australians envisage it should. This is about the integrity of our system,” she said.