Monday, 4 December 2017
Questions without Notice
Donations to Political Parties
My question is to the Leader of the Government in the Senate, representing the Prime Minister. Malcolm Turnbull reportedly hinted at a probe into Labor senator Sam Dastyari's dealing with businessman Huang Xiangmo, someone who intelligence experts believe was, until recently, part of a global campaign run by the Chinese Communist Party to advance China's political interests overseas. Since 2012, Mr Huang has donated almost $3 million to both sides of politics. But, importantly, on 27 September 2017, some two years after ASIO had briefed both the Liberal and Labor parties about the threat of taking donations from Mr Huang, an amended return was lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission by the New South Wales Liberal Party which revealed a $44,000 payment from Mr Huang. Minister, what was the purpose of this payment, and, given the Prime Minister's concerns, will you now commit to repaying the money?
Opposition senators interjecting—
Order on my left! Please stop the clock. On my left—there are too many of you interjecting to name you all.
Senator Wong interjecting—
It may be a collective, using your words, Senator Wong. I couldn't hear Senator Brandis's answer. Senator Brandis, please continue.
I have reviewed the transcript of the Prime Minister's remarks this morning, and, in my view, it is not a fair or indeed an available construction of anything he said to suggest that he even hinted at the existence of an investigation in addressing these matters. What I have said is that certain matters have been credibly alleged by a reputable journalist against Senator Dastyari, and that is undoubtedly true. But I will not comment on, confirm or, for that matter, deny the existence of an investigation, and nor will the Prime Minister or any minister.
A point of order on relevance: the question was very clear—I asked about the purpose of the $44,000 payment to the Liberal Party and whether the Liberal Party, given their comments about Senator Dastyari, would commit to repaying the money.
And I've done so, Mr President, by refuting the wrong suggestion that the Prime Minister hinted at an investigation. He did not. Coming to the rest of your question, Senator Di Natale, I don't know the details of that donation, but I can assure you that the Liberal Party is compliant with all of its disclosure obligations under the Commonwealth Electoral Act. All political parties accept donations from businesspeople—my side of politics does; the Labor Party does; the Greens do—and there is no prohibition on businesspeople donating to political parties just because they are Chinese. That's not the question here, Senator.
A supplementary question: there are reports today that Mr Huang's adviser Mr Xu has joined John Alexander's campaign team for the Bennelong by-election. Can the government confirm whether this in-kind support will now be terminated and whether any other donation or payment from the Yuhu Group or, indeed, any of Mr Huang's other interests will be returned? Has there been any money given to the Bennelong campaign team, and will it be returned?
I don't know whether there has been any money given to the Liberal Party for the Bennelong by-election campaign by any particular donor. But I can assure you, Senator Di Natale, that, if there is, it will be declared in the usual fashion, as all the Liberal Party's donations are and as, I hope and trust, all the Greens' donations from its corporate and individual benefactors are as well.
But, as I was trying to point out to you in answer to your initial question, Senator Di Natale, that is not the issue about Senator Dastyari. Foreign interference in our democratic politics is a serious matter. It is a very serious matter, and that is why, as I said to Senator Macdonald, the government will this week be introducing the most comprehensive set of reforms, including in relation to but not limited to political donations, to address that threat, and we look to the Greens for their support.
The government's and indeed the opposition's response to the Senator Dastyari controversy has sidestepped the deeper problem lying at the heart of our democracy, and that, of course, is that political influence can be bought through donations, whether they're foreign, whether they're from corporations, whether they're from third parties or whether they're from other individuals. With this in mind, will the government now support strict caps for political donations across the board, and will the government support a national anticorruption watchdog?
Senator Di Natale, it's probably a good idea, before you read out prepared questions, to listen to the answers that come earlier on in question time, because, as I indicated to you, far from sidestepping the issue, the government this week will be introducing legislation to deal with that very matter—legislation that has been in development for a long while, because it is a complex area and we have to get it right.
You are quite wrong, Senator Di Natale, with respect, to think that this is only about political donations. That is an important matter. It was credibly alleged this morning by Latika Bourke in the Fairfax papers that Mr Shorten went cap in hand to Mr Huang Xiangmo to beg for and solicit donations for the Australian Labor Party. It is also alleged he had received a warning from the security authorities, something that Mr Shorten is yet to explain. (Time expired)