Senate debates

Monday, 9 September 2019


Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee; Reference

8:07 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That the following matter be referred to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee for inquiry and report by the final sitting day of June 2020:

Australia's relations with the People's Republic of China, with particular reference to:

(a) the management of a mutually respectful and beneficial bilateral relationship between Australia and China;

(b) Australian and Chinese perspectives on, and interests in, regional and global security issues;

(c) trade, investment and infrastructure issues, including Australia's engagement with China's Belt and Road Initiative;

(d) educational and research cooperation;

(e) tourism, cultural exchanges and people-to-people ties;

(f) management of diplomatic and consular arrangements;

(g) dialogue on human rights issues;

(h) the roles of Australian institutions in Australia's relations with China, including: state and local governments, universities and other academic bodies, business, and non-government organisations; and

(i) any related matters.

There is no bigger issue in Australian foreign policy, defence policy and trade policy than that of our relationship with China. As we look towards the decade ahead, Australia will be in a radically different international environment from anything we have faced since the beginning of European settlement of this continent. The key to that change is the rise of China. From January 1788, when the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay, for well over two centuries Australia has had first Great Britain and then the United States as our strategic protector and key trading partner. We were always able to say, to use the words of Sir Robert Menzies, that we had a great and powerful friend, and that friend, be it the UK or the US, was English-speaking and democratic, shared common values and perspectives, was a key trading partner and possessed the naval power to ensure the security of Australian shores. Those days are now beginning to fade, and China, a great Asian power, looms very large in our future. China has become Australia's vital trading partner—our largest two-way trading partner in goods and services, valued at $155.2 billion in 2016; our largest export market, at $93 billion in 2016; and our largest source of imports, at $62.1 billion in 2016.

At the same time, China is transforming Australia's strategic landscape as Beijing develops the military and naval capabilities to challenge the position of the United States and its allies in the Western Pacific and project power much further afield. What China's ultimate ambitions and intentions are, of course, is a matter for lively debate. What is clear, however, is that Australia faces an emerging international environment radically different from what we have experienced through much of our nation's history.

Evidence of this transformation—strategic, economic and political—is before us every day. Decades ago, China would be mentioned only briefly in the world news pages of our newspapers, usually with a reference to internal conflict, poverty or the challenges of economic development. Now China is in the headlines every day. China is, rightly, big news, whether in relation to the United States-China trade dispute, strategic tensions in the South China Sea, China's belt-and-road strategy, China's influence in the South Pacific region, the turmoil on Hong Kong's streets, allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang or developments in the case of the detained Australian citizen Dr Yang Hengjun, who now faces espionage charges brought by China's ministry of state security.

There's also a steady stream of controversies concerning China's growing influence in Australia, including, for example, China's interest in Australian resources and critical infrastructure, the revelation that a Chinese owned mining company has been allowed to set up in Australia's top secret Woomera Defence test range, concerns about political influence on Australian university campuses and the most recent revelations of Chinese money politics in the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Nor is there any shortage of commentary on Australia's relations with China from strategic and economic experts, including the recent observations of the Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Mr Andrew Hastie, from the other place, on China's global ambitions and the warning of the outgoing director-general of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, who, whilst avoiding naming China explicitly, declared covert interference to be an 'existential threat' to Australia.

In these circumstances, it is both proper and timely for the parliament to conduct a wideranging inquiry into Australia's relations with China to see how we can continue to maximise benefit from a mutually beneficial trading relationship but equally to understand where caution is required. There is, of course, nothing unusual in the Senate's Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee conducting inquiries into Australia's relations with various countries. The committee has done this before, without controversy, for example in relation to China in 2005 and 2006, Papua New Guinea in 2010, the Indian Ocean region in 2013 and Mexico in 2015. Other parliamentary committees have also reviewed many aspects of Australia's relationship with China. Indeed, the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties today held a public hearing as part of a current inquiry on the free trade agreement between Australia and Hong Kong China.

A Senate inquiry into relations with China would seek input from the Australian government and its departments and agencies, the embassy of the People's Republic of China, other governments, non-government organisations, universities and other educational institutions, business academics, trade experts and a wide range of other interested stakeholders. I first proposed a Senate committee inquiry into Australia's engagement with China's Belt and Road Initiative in November last year. At the time, the Victorian Labor government had made a decision to sign a memorandum of understanding on China's Belt and Road Initiative which appeared to demonstrate a breakdown of Commonwealth-state coordination on a highly important and sensitive trade and foreign policy issue.

The scale of China's Belt and Road Initiative is absolutely enormous. Since 2013, more than 130 countries have signed deals or expressed interest in projects aimed at boosting trade routes along the remnants of the ancient Silk Road but also extending across the length and breadth of the Indo-Pacific region. The World Bank estimates some $575 billion worth of railways, roads, ports and other projects have been or are in the process of being built across the Indo-Pacific region. However, the Belt and Road Initiative has also come in for criticism, including charges that China is exploiting developing countries—for example, by luring them into debt traps for its own political and strategic purposes. The Australian government has been, rightly, wary of signing up to the Belt and Road Initiative without greater clarity from Beijing about China's strategic objectives and more transparency about how projects are planned, decided upon, funded and implemented.

The lack of effective consultation between the Australian and Victorian governments in relation to the memorandum of understanding was a worry. In its effort to get around the Australian government's reluctance, China's embassy certainly demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of Australia's federal system of government and the partisan fractures of Australian politics. It's been put to me that the Australian government doesn't want to upset China, and that the Chinese embassy here doesn't understand the difference between the executive and the parliament. I put it to you: they understand, perhaps more than most Australians, what the difference is. It's self-evident that Australia needs a nationally coordinated approach. This was, and is, first and foremost, the responsibility of the Australian government and the Australian parliament, with states and territories able to pursue their own initiatives within a foreign policy and trade policy framework.

An examination of these issues by the Senate's Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee appeared both timely and appropriate. I proposed such an inquiry in the hope that it could have pursued this in a bipartisan spirit, with a view to producing a report in good time before the 2019 federal election. Regrettably, both the coalition and Labor opposition voted against the proposal. No public explanation was offered, although behind the scenes it was made clear to me that both the government and the opposition were fearful of China's reaction to any parliamentary inquiry. This was, I regret to say, the beginning of a worrying pattern of self-censorship by this parliament.

Following the federal election I decided to reopen the issue with a new proposal for a broader and more comprehensive inquiry. The terms of reference set out in the motion before the Senate are as follows, and I'll spell them out so that senators may appreciate the comprehensive nature of what is proposed: 'It is proposed that the FADT references committee inquire into Australia's relations with the People's Republic of China, with particular reference to: (a) the management of a mutually respectful and beneficial bilateral relationship between Australia and China; (b) Australian and Chinese perspectives on, and interests in, regional and global security issues; (c) trade, investment and infrastructure issues, including Australia's engagement with China's Belt and Road Initiative; (d) educational and research cooperation; (e) tourism, cultural exchanges and people-to-people ties; (f) management of diplomatic and consular arrangements; (g) dialogue on human rights issues; and (h) the role of Australian institutes in Australia's relationship with China, including state and local governments, universities and other academic bodies, businesses, and non-government organisations, and any related matters.'

We unquestionably need to take a holistic look at Australia's relationship with China, and these broad terms of reference intended to do just that. The Labor opposition—specifically, the chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, Senator Kitching—initially proposed the idea of an inquiry. I was approached by the secretary of the committee, who asked me for the terms of reference I was thinking of proposing in the new parliament, because I'd discussed the inquiry with her. I gladly shared them. The committee, I presumed, liked them, and Senator Kitching moved a motion—which I co-sponsored—but at the last moment she withdrew her name from the motion, and with that went Labor's support. To give more time for Labor to consider its position, I postponed the motion that was left standing in my name until the next sitting day—today, 9 September. The government has not been prepared to support the proposed inquiry, and privately I have been left in no doubt that they are anxious about China's reaction and are fearful that an inquiry would further expose the considerable division within its own ranks on how to deal with this major foreign policy challenge.

I had some hopes that the Labor opposition would come on board. However, last Friday the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and shadow foreign affairs spokesperson, Senator Wong, together with Senator Kitching, issued a joint statement indicating that Labor is not prepared to support the proposed Senate inquiry—at least not at this time. They gave no specific reason for this position but have instead expressed a preference for Labor parliamentarians to be provided with confidential briefings on China from relevant agencies, such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Office of National Intelligence. Labor first requested such briefings more than a month ago but as of last Friday have not received a response. They might be waiting some time, because I've heard that within the government there have been dark mutterings about whether some Labor MPs and senators who are not members of the PJCIS can be trusted not to relay the content of any confidential agency briefings back to political friends of China.

Repeated revelations about China-related political donations and the connection of some senior Labor figures—current and former politicians—with businesses and educational and other connections have undoubtedly fuelled partisan distrust. In any case, I must say that the Labor opposition's decision not to support a Senate inquiry into Australia's relations with China does look like a sad act of political cowardice. The Senate inquiry proposed by Centre Alliance, which Senator Kitching would have chaired, would have provided a much-needed forum for an open and comprehensive discussion of this hugely important relationship. And I point out that Senator Kitching is a most responsible senator. There is no fear in her chairing a committee in relation to China. I think she absolutely understands the importance of the relationship and the need to explore the benefits and, as I said before, the areas where we need caution.

Such an inquiry would facilitate more-holistic policy development and involve a full range of expertise and interest from within and outside the Australian government, not just the national security agencies. Sometimes when you just get a government department perspective that's all you get: a government department perspective. That's the great thing about Senate inquiries: we get all sorts of perspectives. Such an inquiry could help break down the partisan distrust that has been growing and help build a new foundation for bipartisanship on this absolutely critical issue. But in Labor's view China is so sensitive an issue that it can be discussed only behind closed doors, in private briefings, and certainly not in the earshot of the Australian public. Labor's claimed commitment to bipartisanship looks like a political party that's running scared.

Labor might well be anxious to avoid any new opportunity for examination of the question of Chinese government political interference and interference through targeted political donations and networking, especially in relation to the New South Wales Labor machine. But it might also be the case that the Chinese embassy's parliamentary lobbying has proved effective. It's no secret that senior officers of the Chinese embassy have visited the parliament and made it clear that they would very much prefer any discussions of Australia's relationships with China to be narrowly focused into what they regard as safe topics, such as bilateral trade opportunities and positive engagement with the Belt and Road Initiative. That lobbying, together with other channels of influence, may explain Labor's position. Maybe they can stand up and explain why they're not supporting this inquiry.

However, my disappointment is not only with the Labor opposition. The coalition government have consistently opposed any open inquiry on relations with China and, indeed, the Prime Minister and foreign minister have also been active in seeking to suppress or dismiss any independent expression of opinion from their own backbench. All this is deeply unhealthy for the parliament and Australia's democratic system.

Although the parliament recently legislated a range of measures intended to prevent, or at least curb, foreign interference and covert influence in Australian politics, the response of the coalition and Labor to this proposed inquiry suggests that Chinese soft power may already be being very effective in making its presence felt, reaching into this chamber. In this, we are witnessing a much more subtle process than that involving an Aldi bag stuffed with cash. What we are seeing is political self-censorship about a key international relationship. Fear of China is already limiting open debate, analysis and policy consideration. That unquestioningly bodes ill for Australian democracy and our sovereignty.


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