The Australian government has called into question the federal opposition’s “track record” on China declaring Labor has not announced any policy positions relating to the communist regime, even as the federal election nears.
Speaking at a Senate Estimates hearing on Feb. 17, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said there was a big difference between the two major political parties, Labor and the Coalition, both on China and other issues. He noted Labor had slashed defence funding when last in government while the Coalition increased it considerably under current Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Birmingham’s comments come as Labor and their supporters decry allegations, led by Morrison and Defence Minister Peter Dutton, that if elected, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese would be soft on Beijing and more likely to appease the increasingly belligerent communist regime.
Australia’s former ambassador to the United States, Dennis Richardson, who was also head of Australia’s spy agency, ASIO, from 1996 to 2005, accused the Coalition of confecting debate and “actively seeking to create” a difference between the major parties on Beijing’s coercion to win the election.
He described the debate as “grubby beyond belief” and said the national interest was best served by having a unified body politic in Australia; to do otherwise would only serve China. Labor used his comments to claim there was in fact unity when it comes to issues of national security.
But this was disputed by Birmingham.
Sen. Kristina Keneally, Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate, who questioned Birmingham at the hearing, was one of many opposition politicians to accuse the Coalition of “weaponising” national security and intelligence after Mike Burgess, the current boss of ASIO, revealed the agency had foiled a plot to install Manchurian Labor candidates at the upcoming federal elections.
“Minister, why is your government attempting to manufacture differences with the Opposition, in the context of an election, when it only plays into one country’s interests, and that is China?” Keneally said.
“Well, Senator Keneally, I don’t accept that,” Birmingham responded. “Our government has simply responded to comments and statements made by your leader, Senator Keneally. Our government has simply highlighted, as we would in any election campaign, the contrasting track records of the parties.”
At this point in the exchange, Labor Sen. Tim Ayres interjected, declaring Birmingham’s remarks were “grubby, reckless, and shameless,” before the committee chair, Coalition Sen. Eric Abetz, suspended proceedings for five minutes.
Among Labor’s arsenal of talking points was that Burgess had said, in answer to a question by the host of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) 7:30 program, that it’s “not helpful for us” when politicians politicise national security and intelligence in the lead up to an election.
These comments have since been framed by Labor and in some media reporting as a warning from the spy chief against the Coalition.
Burgess’ full quote was: “So I’ll leave the politics to the politicians. But I’m very clear with everyone that I need to be that that’s not helpful for us.”
However, after seven days of accusations from the Coalition about its record and stance, Albanese has still not clarified Labor’s policy commitments or strategy towards Beijing.
Birmingham drew attention to this during the Senate hearing, saying: “I would urge the opposition to, with some haste, make clear all of its commitments in support of the different decisions the government has taken; the future budget profiles, in relation to all of these areas; to make sure that there is not—not—a wafer between your policy position and the type of policy positions that we are advancing.”
The Epoch Times sought to learn what Labor’s policies on China might be if elected to government, contacting Albanese’s press office on Feb. 9, 10, and 11.
With a federal election due by May, the questions focused on how Labor might distinguish itself from the Coalition given there have been significant changes in Australia’s strategic environment since the last time Labor was in government.
Among the questions were queries on how Labor would act to make Australia safer amid the rising tensions in our region, how Albanese would handle Beijing’s coercion, including its list of 14 grievances against Australia; if it recognised the Chinese regime as the same level of threat as the Coalition; and whether it would maintain, increase, or decrease funding of the defence forces, ASIO, and law enforcement.
The enquiries were never answered.
However, Albanese posted a video on Twitter featuring some of his comments in parliament, suggesting that questioning Labor’s record on China was trashing the national interest.
“This week, the prime minister said, ‘Hold my beer. Hold my beer. What I’m going to do is trash our national interest.’ That is what he said,” Albanese said in the video, in which he quoted Burgess and Richardson.
“He (Morrison) has served, with the campaign that has happened this week, the interests of China, not our national interests,” Albanese added.
Birmingham said Labor’s slashing of the defence budget had worked to “undermine national resilience” in terms of Australia’s ability to “withstand coercion and pressure.”
“The Coalition government, in significantly increasing that defence investment and expenditure, is a contrast, and a contrast that is entirely valid for Australians to consider, in terms of who is best capable to manage the national security of Australia,” the South Australian senator said.
Under the Coalition’s 2016 Defence White Paper and 2020 Defence Strategic Update, the government announced defence spending would grow to two percent of Australia’s gross domestic product by 2020-21, enabling around $195 billion in new investment. The White Paper noted that it was needed after prior “significant under-investment” and called it the “most ambitious plan to regenerate the Royal Australian Navy since the Second World War.”
Discussing Foreign Interference and National Security in the Context of Grey Zone Warfare
Labor’s primary response, so far, has been to focus its response on attacking the “grubby” insinuation that it might be more susceptible to foreign interference from China and declaring that to “weaponise” national security and intelligence undermined ASIO’s ability to work with international partners to share intelligence.
This uncomfortable turn in the political discourse towards the risk of foreign interference in the political parties comes at the same time that ASIO’s spy chief announced that espionage and foreign interference had “supplanted” terrorism as the intelligence agency’s principal security concern for Australia.
“This is not to downplay the significance of terrorism. In terms of the scale and sophistication, though, espionage and foreign interference threats are outpacing terrorism threats, and therefore demand more attention and resources,” Burgess told a senate estimates hearing on Feb. 14.
The Coalition’s new direct and aggressive posture towards Labor on its China record also comes at a time when the Morrison government has been in a perpetual state of countering Beijing’s grey zone warfare activities in the Indo-Pacific since 2018.
The grey zone is an area between peace and war, where a country’s activities fall just below the threshold of traditional warfare—such as cyber attacks, foreign interference, and economic pressure.
Some of the Morrison government’s activities to counter Beijing’s grey zone warfare tactics have included launching investigations into foreign interference, ramping up cyber capabilities and military strength, and shoring up relationships with regional partners on security and trade in the face of Beijing’s economic coercion and militarising features in the South China Sea—including turning islands into unsinkable aircraft carriers while it threatens to invade Taiwan.
They have also stood firm against CCP coercive pressure on trade and Australian sovereignty, refusing to acquiesce to Beijing’s list of 14 grievances after Australia led the charge for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19.
‘Well-Documented’ Beijing Influence
Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said Chinese interference in Australia and around the world was well-documented, noting the FBI has 12,000 cases of foreign interference by China under investigation, and ASIO was “looking at matters themselves.”
Most of the Australian body politic, and other sectors, has been coming to grips with the naked reality of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and after two decades is abandoning any idea that free trade would have enticed the authoritarian regime to become more liberal.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has publicly stated his ambitions for the CCP to dominate the world in military, economic, diplomatic, and political power.
“That’s the reality and we need to deal with that,” Dutton told ABC on Feb. 11.
Dutton said Australia wants China to be a “reliable partner” that respects human rights and with whom a relationship can be built.
The Morrison government’s approach, according to Dutton, is to exert “whatever pressure we can to make sure that the relationship normalises” and China becomes a “good trading partner” that continues to “grow.”
But he admits that’s a two-way process, and instead, the CCP has amassed nuclear weapons, turned reefs and islands into unsinkable aircraft carriers, and has come to control 20 ports around the world through its trojan horse, debt-trap lending scheme, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“It just can’t be ignored,” Dutton said. “We can’t have a decade where, you know, we can block our ears and close your mouth and pretend that nothing is happening. This is a very concerning period and we’re better off to be open, frank, and push back on some of that aggression.
“If we do that, then I think we have the best chance of prevailing peace and stability in our region,” he said.
Australia has sought to do this through partnerships with allies on the Quad security pact with the United States, Japan, and India, and the AUKUS alliance with the United Kingdom and the United States.
It has also sought to shore up relationships with Pacific island nations that the CCP has targeted with its BRI infrastructure loans, which have left a number of developing countries unable to pay back their debts and having to hand over control of strategically important ports to Beijing.
On the home front, foreign interference is being rooted out as well.
In 2017, Labor Sen. Sam Dastyari resigned after it was revealed that he asked the CCP-linked Yuhu Group to pay a $40,000 legal bill, and he admitted to asking a CCP-linked group to pay a personal travel debt worth around $1,600. He also warned billionaire Huang Xiangmo, owner of Yuhu Group, that intelligence agencies were likely tapping his phone.
Dastyari also received negative press over a 2016 speech in which he publicly backed Beijing’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea. His comments, made while standing next to Huang, were the complete opposite of national Labor’s and the country’s stance on the issue.
In 2021, former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating said Australia had “lost its way” regarding its China policies in a speech to the National Press Club. He said that Australia should stay out of any conflict with Taiwan, and suggested that the U.S.- and UK-backed nuclear submarines, which came out of the AUKUS security pact minted in September 2021, would be like “throwing toothpicks” at the “mountain,” meaning China.
These remarks were criticised by both Labor and Coalition MPs. Meanwhile, Albanese, who noted that China had “changed its stance,” didn’t say whether he agreed with Keating, but said that “he is wise counsel.”
Also in 2021, when government diplomats and ministers were being frozen out by their Chinese counterparts, and amid an ongoing economic coercion campaign being waged by Beijing against Australia, former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told a trade forum organised by a Chinese propaganda body and a state-run media outlet that free trade played an important role in China’s economic development.
“It is hoped that China will continue to adhere to free trade, reform and opening up, and multilateralism, which will benefit the development of China, the region, and the world,” he said via video.
Meanwhile, Victoria’s Labor leader, Premier Daniel Andrews, in 2018 defended his state government’s decision to keep the terms of its BRI deal with Beijing secret, saying “that’s the way these things work.” The Morrison government has since legislated new powers for the foreign minister to tear up such deals deemed against the national interest.
In 2020, Andrews went on to defend a Chinese-Australian staffer in his electoral office when it was revealed she had links to Beijing’s United Front Work Department (UFWD)—the CCP’s main foreign influence body.
Labor Sen. Keneally, who decried Birmingham’s responses when questioning him on the Coalition’s assertions that Labor would be soft on China during the Senate Estimates, in 2021 met with the head of the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, which is linked to the UFWD, whose previous president was the controversial billionaire Huang Xiangmo, who was connected to the downfall of Dastyari.
“It was great to meet with the Australian Chinese Teochew Association in Cabramatta last week,” Keneally wrote on Twitter on Oct. 19, 2021.
Among Labor’s top advocates for closer ties with Beijing is retired state and federal politician, Bob Carr, who served as Labor premier of New South Wales from 1995 to 2005, and as foreign minister under Gillard and Rudd.
In a 2018 article for the Australian Financial Review, Prof. John Fitzgerald alleged Carr had become a pawn of Beijing who lauded “the achievements of Xi Jinping” while condemning his critics.
“In China, it is unlikely that any program organiser would turn down the opportunity of including Bob Carr. In a country where the UN Declaration counts for little, few can speak their minds, and none are permitted to criticise their own government, Carr’s willingness to lambast Australia’s government and applaud China’s has made him a media darling,” Fitzgerald wrote.
As the Coalition mounts its campaign against Labor’s foreign policy record Carr has been among its defenders, taking to Twitter to accuse the Coalition of smearing Albanese and running a “Red Scare” campaign. He has also defended an NSW state Labor candidate who praised the BRI.
In his article, Fitzgerald wrote that billionaire Chinese-Australian political donor Chau Chak Wing had boasted how he personally selected Carr to run the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) at the University of Technology Sydney—the same university to which Chau made a large donation. It was after his time at ACRI that Fitzgerald said Carr changed his tune on China to become a staunch advocate.
Chau was also the focus of a question put by Sen. Kimberley Kitching—a Labor member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China—to ASIO boss Burgess at a Senate estimates hearing on Feb. 14, seeking confirmation of whether Chau was the “puppeteer” behind the alleged plot to install Manchurian candidates into Parliament via Labor in New South Wales. Burgess said he could not comment on speculation and said it was “unfair” to be asked that question in public.
Labor’s approach to Beijing if elected might have been glimpsed in a speech by the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Sen. Penny Wong, at Australian National University in 2021.
“Australia’s leaders should take the world as it is,” Wong said.
In an opinion piece for The Epoch Times, Lincoln Parker, who chairs the Defence and National Security Policy Branch of the Liberal Party of Australia, and has emerged as a potential Coalition candidate in the upcoming federal election, took Wong’s reference to the “world” to mean “China.”
Parker wrote: “But Wong dismisses Beijing’s aggression and atrocities when she said: ‘We need to look beyond the news of the day.’ In other words, take China as it is and leave well enough alone.”
He suggests Labor would have Australia accept Beijing’s dominance as inevitable.
Australia is heading towards a federal election due in May, in which early signs indicate debate may likely centre on Beijing, foreign interference, and national security, even if, as Dutton previously said, Labor don’t want to talk about it.