Senate debates

Monday, 11 November 2019


Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee; Reference

5:10 pm

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

I seek leave to amend Business of the Senate notice of motion No. 2 standing in my name for today.

Leave granted.

I move the motion as amended:

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:

(1) That the Senate notes recent statements concerning Australia's relations with the People's Republic of China, including:

(a) the speech of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Payne, on 19 September 2019 in which she stated that in pursuing Australian diplomacy she will advance 'Australian values' and that 'at times that will mean speaking our mind or taking actions that seem disagreeable to others';

(b) the comments of Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Dutton, on 11 October 2019 that it is necessary to have a 'frank conversation' about China’s global influence: its Belt and Road Initiative, expansionism in the South China Sea and growing military and aid presence in the lndo-Pacific;

(c) Mr Dutton's further observations that the values, policies and actions of the Chinese Communist Party are 'inconsistent' with Australian democratic values and that 'We're not going to allow theft of intellectual property and we're not going to allow our government bodies or non-government bodies to be hacked into';

(d) the remarks of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, on 12 October 2019, that Mr Dutton's comments 'just simply reflect the fact we're two different countries' and that 'China will do what they do in their country, and we respect that too';

(e) the comments of the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Senator Canavan, on 13 October 2019 that Mr Dutton was 'just stating the facts of the matter' and that it is a 'longstanding fact' that Australia and China have different systems of government and political values;

(f) the statement of the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Wong, on 14 October 2019 that she has made 'repeated requests' to the Minister for Foreign Affairs that relevant agencies, such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Office of National Intelligence, provide a detailed and comprehensive briefing for parliamentarians on Australia's relationship with China; and

(g) Senator Wong's statement on 24 October 2019 that the Minister for Foreign Affairs has written to the Opposition declining to provide the requested briefings.

(2) 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.

I make no apology for the groundhog day aspect of this motion. As senators will be aware, I have already twice moved motions which, in their operative parts, were identical to today's motion—that is, to establish an inquiry by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee into Australia's relationship with China. I have been prompted to revisit this matter by the significant statements made since the Senate last voted on this question, on 16 September.

As set out in the preamble of the motion, these statements include the speech by the Minister for Foreign Affairs on 19 September, in which she highlighted the importance of Australian values in our nation's diplomacy and especially in our relations with China, including the importance of being prepared to speak our minds even to the discomfort of others. The foreign minister spoke well on that occasion. She subsequently made further comments in which she said that Australia and other countries must hold the Chinese government accountable for its human rights abuses domestically because, aside from the intrinsic importance of human rights, 'Countries that respect and promote their citizens' rights at home tend to be better international citizens.' Australia does need to stand up in international affairs and speak up for our values of democracy, human rights and respect for the rule of law and a rules based international system. That is especially true of this institution, the Australian parliament.

Significant statements referenced in today's motion also include the observation of the Minister for Home Affairs in which he called for a frank conversation about China's global and regional influence and aspects of our bilateral relations, including Chinese political interference, activities on our university campuses, the theft of intellectual property and the hacking of Australian government and non-government bodies. Mr Dutton observed that the values of the Chinese Communist Party are inconsistent with Australian democratic values and said:

We're not going to allow theft of intellectual property and we're not going to allow our government bodies or non-government bodies to be hacked into.

I would add that the last matter, computer hacking, has included not only Australian government agencies, political parties and the Australian National University but also the computer system of this parliament. By implication, according to the Home Affairs minister, we haven't been having a frank conversation about these matters. As senators will be aware, Mr Dutton's remarks triggered a strident response from the Chinese embassy. The embassy denounced Minister Dutton's statement as 'irrational', 'a malicious slur on the Communist Party of China' and 'an outright provocation to the Chinese people'. It's strong language, but that's not unusual from the Chinese government. Subsequent to that statement by the embassy, Prime Minister Morrison observed that the Home Affairs minister was just stating the facts. A similar comment was made by the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Senator Canavan.

On 14 October the shadow minister for foreign affairs, Senator Wong, also contributed to the debate, with a significant speech to the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Senator Wong called for a bipartisan debate to help 'define the boundaries' of Australia's engagement with China in an environment in which our two countries have 'substantial and growing differences'. Senator Wong observed:

It is inevitable that Australia will make more decisions that China doesn't like.

This means that the way the relationship is handled will become even more important.

…   …   …

Although there continues to be convergence of interests, the divergences have become more apparent and acute—due to both Beijing's increasing assertiveness and greater awareness in Australia as to the implications of the CCP's—

the Chinese Communist Party's—

behaviour and ambitions.

We must look at how best to engage effectively with China while always standing up for our values, our sovereignty and our democratic system.

Senator Wong rightly observed that, while the Australian government has to provide leadership, all stakeholders, including the Labor opposition, the foreign policy and defence community and business, 'need to work together to identify opportunities for deeper engagement where our interests coincide and to manage difference constructively'. Senator Wong said that Labor wants to engage in a bipartisan way on a China policy. She observed:

I have made repeated requests to the Foreign Minister that relevant agencies, such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Office of National Intelligence, provide a detailed and comprehensive briefing for parliamentarians on Australia's relationship with China.

That request was first made on 18 August this year, nearly three months ago. It was reiterated on 6 September. On 11 September, in answer to a question from Senator Kitching, the Minister for Foreign Affairs replied negatively. Senator Wong appears to have still held out some hope that the government might change its mind. In her 14 October speech she indicated that she did not regard the matter as closed. However, on 24 October Senator Wong told the foreign affairs and trade estimates hearing that she had just received a letter from the foreign minister that formally advised that the government will not provide the agency briefings requested by the opposition. That's an unfortunate decision by government.

The question that the opposition now face is: where do they go next? Senator Wong is right to highlight the importance of a non-partisan debate on Australia's engagement with China. She is also right to emphasise the importance of developing a serious and long-term plan that can proactively navigate us through the strategic competition between the US and China and manage this new phase of our relationship with a more assertive China. This is something that can't be done by government alone. It's not something that can be done by one political party alone. This is a challenge that needs to be taken up through a broad and inclusive process—a process that will bring the full range of stakeholders and interested groups to the table. It's a process that should avoid partisan politics. It should holistically embrace economic and strategic considerations and take a long-term view of Australia's national interests.

It's against that backdrop that I have brought back to the Senate today this motion for a Senate committee inquiry. China is the No. 1 issue in Australia's foreign relations. There can be no question about that. We have a much more complex and challenging relationship, one that is increasingly fraught in some respects, and it is all the more important that the Australian parliament fully engage on this vital question. That is what is proposed for a Senate committee inquiry today—to provide a forum through which the Senate can engage in a non-partisan, thoughtful way, drawing on a full range of available expertise from within government, business, universities and non-government organisations. It could only be in Australia's national interest to have a comprehensive inquiry examine how we might pursue a mutually respectful and advantageous relationship with Beijing, while being mindful of issues in relation to which greater caution may be required.

Issues that could be examined include China's strategic ambitions in South-East Asia and the Pacific, including Beijing's growing influence in Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere. An inquiry could examine our vital trade relationships with China, including our dependence on raw material exports, and the potential to develop new trading opportunities and a more balanced export trade pattern. There is also the question of Chinese investment in Australia, in resources and critical infrastructure, as well as in agriculture—including, for example, takeover bids for Australian exporters such as Tasmanian based company Bellamy's, which produces infant milk formula. We need to consider the federal aspects of our relationship with China, not only the role of the Australian government agencies but also the engagement of state and territory governments with Chinese trade and investment activities. We also need to take a close look at China's influence and interference in Australia, including the activities of the so-called United Front organisations in Australia and the role of the Chinese-government-controlled student organisations on Australian university campuses. There would also be the opportunity to examine human rights issues, including the deeply worrying case of imprisoned Australian Yang Hengjun.

As I noted previously, there is, of course, nothing unusual in the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee conducting an inquiry into Australia's relationship with other countries, including China. The Senate committee has previously conducted inquiries on China, though not for well over a decade. My understanding is that the Senate FADT committee members were quite supportive of this proposed inquiry when the idea was first raised. I've got no doubt that the chair of the committee, Senator Kitching, would lead a very measured and substantive inquiry. I don't see any reason why such a Senate inquiry would harm or complicate our relations with China. The inquiry proposed by this motion would engage all elements of opinion within the Australian parliament—the coalition, Labor, the Greens and the crossbench. With that, we might find our way through partisan controversies and towards developing a forward-thinking approach to this critically important relationship that would enjoy support not only across this parliament but across the broad Australian community.

This will be the third opportunity for the coalition and Labor to come together in the national interest and agree to work together on a comprehensive parliamentary review of Australia's relations with China. Only then will we start to build a new national consensus on managing this relationship in what are difficult and troubling times. Australia's national interest demands nothing less.


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