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.
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.
"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.
Discussing Foreign Interference and National Security in the Context of Grey Zone WarfareLabor'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 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.
'Well-Documented’ Beijing InfluenceAustralian 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.
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.
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."
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.
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 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.
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.
“Australia’s leaders should take the world as it is,” Wong said.
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.