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.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

What I might do is go to Senator Roberts, because Senator Roberts has been sitting here for the last hour.

Senator Gallagher interjecting

Sorry, did the government jump up? Thank you, Senator Gallagher; I did not see that. You can understand that there was a flurry of activity in my line of sight. Sorry, Minister. Sorry, Senator Roberts; I will come to you after.

8:26 pm

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries) Share this | | Hansard source

Just on Senator Patrick's motion, there will be only a brief contribution from the government. I thank the opposition for drawing that to the chair's attention. Australia's relationship with China is important. It is complex and it engages the full range of national interests. We will continue to be clear and consistent in the management of our relations with China. We will reject any attempts to politicise this. There's great benefit to our close cooperation with China on issues of mutual interest, including on how we can contribute to regional prosperity, stability and also security. We manage any bilateral issues from a national interest perspective on the basis of mutual respect, including on issues of sovereignty, for which we make no apology.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Roberts, with your indulgence, I would like to go to Senator Gallagher, because there was a bit of time spent in Senator Patrick's contribution on questions to the opposition.

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I would just remind you that convention would have it that as the leader of the third biggest party in the Senate I should be given the call over Senator Roberts.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

Where would I be without you, Senator Di Natale? Seriously! There is no point of order. I call Senator Gallagher, and Senator Roberts will be next.

8:27 pm

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank fellow senators for the opportunity this evening to speak to this. It's clear there's a strong interest among members and senators in the management of Australia's relationship with China. There have been many expressions of this interest, including this proposal from Senator Patrick for an inquiry. Labor note the government will not be supporting an inquiry, but we believe that the call for an inquiry reflects the broader desire amongst parliamentarians to be better briefed on the points of convergence and the points of divergence in Australia's relationship with China.

China is, and will continue to be, of great importance to Australia, the region and the world. The key question for Australia is: how do we make the relationship best work for us? It is reasonable and appropriate for parliamentarians to want assurance that our national interest is being served, and access to quality briefing is critical in constructive parliamentary engagement. Last month, in the interests of a calm and mature debate and the hope of continuing a bipartisan approach to the relationship, Labor wrote to the foreign minister requesting 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. Labor have not received a response, but recent events have only emphasised that Australia's relationship with China is complex and consequential and getting more so.

Last week, Labor formally reiterated our request for a comprehensive briefing, which we maintain is a critical first step in parliamentary engagement. We have also determined that the proposed inquiry is not the best approach to the discussion at this time. Labor are also establishing caucus processes for engagement on this subject, because Labor believe it is the job of all parliamentarians to protect and advance the national interest. The national interest is best served by a bipartisan approach to the relationship. This does not mean uncritical support for the government's approach. Rather, it means a sensible, calm and mature discussion, without seeking to exploit complexities in the China relationship for political advantage.

8:30 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I would like to say that One Nation is supportive of the motion that Australia's relations with the People's Republic of China be referred to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee for inquiry and preparation of a report. It is imperative that Australia and China maintain a mutually respective and beneficial bilateral relationship, and I thank Senator Patrick for moving this motion.

China is Australia's largest two-way trading partner—export market and import source—representing 24 per cent of total trade, with a value of a staggering $183 billion. Australia is China's sixth-largest trading partner and fifth-biggest supplier of imports. Twenty-five per cent of Australia's manufactured imports come from China, and 13 per cent of Australia's exports, including thermal coal, go to China. A free trade agreement was signed between the two countries in June 2015.

In more recent times, China has embarked on the One Belt, One Road initiative, as Senator Patrick drew to our attention. This is a Chinese economic and strategic agenda where Eurasia, Africa and Oceania are more closely tied along two routes—one land route and one maritime route. Those who support the initiative say that it facilitates the development of infrastructure and economic aid to needy economies. On the other hand, it can be said to facilitate Chinese economic and strategic domination of smaller countries on the route—some near us. In Australia we see growing Chinese involvement in projects from northern Australia to Tasmania, all providing little benefit to Australia but substantial benefit to China.

Other examples of Chinese involvement have been in the funding and support of local academic conferences and seminars. One of the ongoing issues of mutual concern relates to regional and global security. The growing tensions between the United States of America and the People's Republic of China in terms of imposition of trade tariffs is placing Australia in a challenging position, given the importance of Australia's relationships with both these countries. Similarly, the views taken of China's growing military influence in the South China Sea remain of concern to the United States of America and necessarily Australia as an established ally of the United States. Regionally, China is having a growing influence by funding infrastructure projects for some of the Pacific island countries and Papua New Guinea on our northerly doorstep. This runs the risk of changing the dynamic between Australia and our near neighbours.

Australia is a destination of choice for many Chinese students to further their education in our Australian academic institutions. In 2018, there were more than 166,000 enrolments of Chinese students in Australia representing 43.3 per cent of the total international student cohort—almost half. Noted in some Australian universities is the potential dependence generated by full-fee-paying international students on the overall money pool available to the universities' budgets. The concern is that, should those numbers suddenly diminish, some of those universities may be left destitute.

The unfettered Chinese development of five research bases within the Australian Antarctic Territory is of growing concern to many of us at a time when Australian investment into its three bases in that territory has been considered relatively conservative by comparison. Given the potential for military and strategic use of these bases by China and the potential for resource extraction at some future time, there is a need to consider this factor when examining our increasingly important and complex relationships with China.

Australia is also a favoured destination for Chinese tourists and this is shown by recent numbers. More than 1.3 million Chinese tourists visited Australia last year, representing 15 per cent of the total of visitors to our country. This is a clear positive for Australia. At the same time, there is a growing boom of tourists heading to China, which is welcoming tourists from around the world, including 700,000 of them from Australia alone.

Human rights, though, is a massive and huge issue where China and Australia have complex competing views. Australia is a democracy and a signatory to many international agreements that preserve basic human rights. China is a totalitarian republic following a communist regime that is very rigid, with little room to question the state and having limited rights for the individual. One only has to turn on the news and watch the demonstrations for freedom happening in Hong Kong to see how that goes down. Many Australians remember the events of Tiananmen Square. The detention of those whose views differ from those of the regime is a continuing disgrace and worthy of further review.

Currently Australian writer Yang Hengjun is being detained in China in harsh conditions and has been charged with spying—a serious issue that could bring the death penalty if he is found guilty. He has published works promoting democracy and seems to be now paying the penalty for having a different point of view and daring to express it. An Australian expressing his point of view—what could be more natural? He has been denied access to his lawyers and family. I'll now read selectively from an article in the Weekend Australian by the president of the Law Council of Australia, Arthur Moses. He points out:

After travelling to China with his family, the democracy advocate and academic was detained in January on the allegation of being suspected of "endangering national security".

Since then he has been held in harsh conditions without charge, with limited access to consular assistance. He has not been permitted to talk to his lawyers or see his family.

His lawyers do not even know the particulars of the allegations against him. As I said, Yang is an Australian citizen. Arthur Moses also writes:

Being a true friend and ally of any nation means when issues arise in a foreign justice system affecting Australian citizens, we are obliged to speak up.

This is the president of the Law Council of Australia. He goes on to say:

As a blogger, he has written thousands of articles promoting the rule of law, democracy and human rights, and built up a large following in China.

These fundamental things that Yang is fighting for go back to our country's roots in the Magna Carta, to our own Constitution and to the tenet of presumption of innocence. Mr Moses goes on further to say:

Yang and detainees like him must be treated humanely in a fair, transparent manner …

Mr Moses says that this is really important for our own future, and then says:

But it is the rule of law that most strongly drives economic performance.

Without the rule of law, there can be no stable, strong economy—and that is core.

I make note of the LNP's Andrew Hastie's courageous comments about China—frank and open comments about China. I note Senator Patrick's comments about Senator Kimberley Kitching from the Labor Party being a co-sponsor initially. That's on the public record. I wonder—a question of Senator Patrick—is Labor worried about losing donations rather than just simply being cowed? Then we have, as Senator Patrick pointed out, the New South Wales ICAC's ruminations right now. We have questions over the Liberal Party's interactions with Chinese influences. It's not just the Labor Party. We have land ownership issues that are upsetting many, many Australians, including One Nation supporters. We have essential infrastructure being handed over to the Chinese to control our ports, our electricity supply and potentially our railroads. And when Clive Hamilton becomes an ally in saying exactly these things, and warning us of China's influence, then it's really a point to take note, because we don't see eye to eye with Clive Hamilton on very many issues. I hope paragraph (h) in Senator Patrick's motion includes political institutions as well, not just university institutions.

In summary, China is a vital and important trading partner. There are military and security questions associated with this large and increasingly powerful country, there are human rights issues and there are fundamentals about the practice of law. This is a complex relationship, as Senator Patrick has the courage to point out, and it must be inquired into for the benefit of our future, for the planning of our future and for the security and safeguarding of our future. Government has three fundamental roles: to protect life, protect property and protect freedom. There are needs in this inquiry to ensure that it protects Australia's future, but there are also enormous opportunities, as Senator Patrick pointed out, if we understand this relationship and the potential for the future. One Nation supports the call for such an inquiry into a nation exerting powerful influences on our nation and on key institutions in our nation and with potentially far more powerful influences in our nation's future. For the people of Australia, I urge senators to support Senator Patrick and this motion.

8:40 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of this referral motion from Senator Patrick. Australia's relationship with China has quite rightly been very widely debated within the community and certainly within the media over recent months, and how we manage this relationship is one of the critical foreign policy questions of our generation. It's a critical foreign policy question for this government, and no doubt it will continue to be a critical question for future governments over the decades to come.

It's a complex relationship. There are many facets to this relationship, including our trade relationship. It's an important trading partner. Of course, that's come into stark relief when you look at the trade war that's now going on between China and Trump's America. We know that China has sought to increase its influence across the world through its Belt and Road Initiative. Of course, its influence across the Pacific and indeed here in Australia is something that many of us have become increasingly aware of. You need only look at what's going on in New South Wales right now with the ICAC hearings to know how wide and deep the reach of the Chinese Communist Party goes. Indeed, what we heard from the former ASIO chief was that in his view the issue of foreign interference in democratic countries is the threat facing Australia—a bigger threat than the threat of terrorism, for example. Again, we've had recent examples of that, where the databases of our major political parties were hacked into by foreign influencers. So there are many facets to this relationship. Of course, it's an important trading partner and it is a country with growing influence across the world.

But one of the things that are often absent in any debate about Australia's relationship with China is our approach to China's human rights record. Just a few months ago, we saw our flagship current affairs program, Four Corners, dedicate an episode to the appalling human rights abuses being committed in China's Xinjiang region against its Turkic Muslim population. Xinjiang has a Turkic Muslim population of 13 million people, and out of those 13 million people one million are arbitrarily detained without any legal process. I'll say that again: one million people are being rounded up and arbitrarily detained—some for weeks, some for months and some for years. Families are being torn apart. Those incarcerated are subject to forced labour and sometimes to torture and forced political indoctrination. Of course, outside the camps Uygurs and other Turkic Muslims are denied the right to freedom of movement and freedom of religion. The mass surveillance that's going on at the moment in Xinjiang is terrifying. People going about their daily business are watched constantly by the state and forced to give their biometric data. Face- and voice-recognition technology is being used as a tool of repression.

I had the great privilege in our last sitting week to meet some of the Uygur Australians whose lives have been irreparably altered by China's devastating repression. I met people like Sadam, who is a young man whose wife and baby are trapped in China right now, and people like Almas, whose mum is in a camp and whose wife is in prison simply for studying in Egypt. The situation of the Uygur community within China is something that the Australian government needs to stand up against and make its voice heard on.

But, of course, it's not just what's going on with the Uygurs. We know of the injustices perpetrated against the Tibetan people by the Chinese government, with Tibetans being deprived of their right to democracy again, deprived of their right to freedom of speech and deprived of their right to freedom of religious observance. Right now, people in Tibet can be locked up for years simply for doing things like making documentaries and documenting the plight of their people. Tibetan monks and nuns are being forced by Chinese authorities to act as propagandists for the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party. There are plans right now for massive nature reserves in Tibet, which further threaten the dispossession of Tibetan nomads, under the guise of protecting a unique and important ecosystem.

This referral motion that we're discussing today couldn't be more timely when you consider that it's occurring at a moment in history when there is a rising pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong stood firm in the face of a fearsome build-up of force on the border, an overpowering and violent police presence, the unleashing of tear gas and rubber bullets and threats of arrests and reprisals. I had the privilege of meeting with young students from Hong Kong studying here in Australia who have been targeted while they have been here in Australia and are concerned that they are themselves being victims of surveillance.

Beijing is overseeing the withdrawal of what has been described as the extradition bill, but we know that the response from Hong Kong and the authorities there, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, falls a long way short in meeting the demands of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. The police brutality going on in Hong Kong right now is shocking. The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong are rightly calling for an independent investigation into that police brutality, and, to date, the authorities have refused to grant that request. And, of course, they are not even considering the demand for universal suffrage—something that the people of Hong Kong believe, as do we, is essential in any properly functioning democracy.

So, of course, the Senate should be examining in detail our relationship with China in the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee. If we can't examine an issue of such critical importance to the Australian community as our relationship with China, then what on earth is the point of that committee? So far the Morrison government has failed to take any meaningful action against all of these egregious human rights abuses. So here is an opportunity for our parliament to show some leadership and to look at this issue in detail. It's hardly a surprise that support for this referral is coming from the crossbench. When you consider that both major parties have been the beneficiary of those huge donations flowing into the bank accounts of both sides of politics, it's no wonder that they both appear to have been cowed into inaction. I have to say that it is with great disappointment that we now see that the ALP has withdrawn its co-sponsorship of this motion. It's hardly a surprise that the government would not support it. Of course, the timing is impeccable when you consider what is going on right now with the revelations from New South Wales ICAC. You have to wonder if this is what $100,000 in an Aldi bag buys you.

When it comes to our relationship with China, there is no more important issue right now than ensuring that we examine, in great detail, all dimensions of that relationship. And far too often absent from that discourse is any discussion about how Australia should address the issue of human rights abuses occurring in China. This was an opportunity to put those issues on the national agenda, and to have a detailed, thorough and forensic look at what it is that we can do—as a nation that should be a beacon for human rights and democracy around the world—to ensure that, at least when it comes to the actions of the Chinese government, the view of hardworking, decent Australians is reflected in the relationships with other countries abroad.

8:50 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to strongly support Senator Patrick's motion, because an inquiry such as this would assist in us having a really important national conversation in this country. And that needs to be a conversation around what the nature of Australia's relationship with China should be, and what the nature of our relationship with the Chinese government should be. Central to that conversation, there needs to be an assessment about what kind of government it is that currently holds power in China. We need to understand that the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party, is unmistakably a totalitarian regime. It's unmistakably a regime with absolute disdain for human rights. It is certainly a regime with a demonstrated track record of cracking down ruthlessly on dissent and on cultural difference. If you don't agree, I suggest you find a Tibetan person in Australia and ask them about their lived history and the lived history of their families, where we have seen the Chinese Communist Party run a program of mass murder and a certain attempt to destroy the Tibetan culture.

But the CCP is also a government that cracks down ruthlessly on democracy. On Sunday a week ago, on 1 September, I hosted some Hong Kong students who are currently studying at the University of Tasmania. I invited a number of them into my Senate office, where we erected a Lennon wall in the window of my office, which fronts on to Macquarie Street in the Hobart CBD. For those who don't know, Lennon walls, in the context of the current struggles in Hong Kong, have sprung up around the world and have allowed students from Hong Kong who support democracy in Hong Kong to express their views in numerous countries around the world. And the reason I did that was that the Lennon walls at the University of Tasmania had been pulled down—destroyed or damaged—on more than one occasion. Now, we don't know who destroyed or damaged the Lennon walls at the University of Tasmania but, as someone who strongly supports democracy and as someone who watches around the world as the foundations of many democracies are starting to fracture and crumble—as they are, by the way, in this country—I wanted to do something to help those brave students from Hong Kong, who at the moment happen to be in Tasmania, to have their voices heard. So it was a profoundly powerful evening in my office, where the sticky notes went up, including one with the slogan of the Hong Kong protesters: 'Be water'—which is the most beautiful way of resisting, when you think about it. Anyone who saw Four Corners a couple of weeks ago would know about how the protesters attend in one particular location in Hong Kong and then, when the security apparatus arrives, they drift away through the subways or the streets and they spring up at another location in Hong Kong, just like water does as it runs downhill.

What I can say, having spent a long time in conversation with some of the Hong Kong students currently in Tasmania, is that many of the students who are currently demonstrating against, protesting and resisting CCP influence in Hong Kong and who are actively standing up for democracy in Hong Kong believe they're fighting for their very lives. They believe that this is the only time that they will have and that, if they don't win this one, they're not going to win at all. That's why I look at what's going on in Hong Kong with fear in my heart, because we saw at Tiananmen Square what the Chinese government has been prepared to do in the past to people who showed dissent and who stood up against them. We've seen a Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy activist die in prison in China. The track record of the CCP on cracking down on dissent has been written through the pages of recent human history.

Now we have the situation that the Uygurs in China find themselves in. The United Nations believes there are credible reports that 1.1 million Uygurs have currently been imprisoned. There are some estimates that the number is as high as three million Uygurs currently detained in what the Chinese government calls re-education facilities, but I describe as concentration camps. I just want to read a little bit of testimony from a Uygur man called Muhammad Attawulla who comes from southern Xinjiang. He's been studying in Turkey since 2016, but he's told ABC News that he has five relatives in detention, including his mother, two brothers and a brother-in-law. I just want to read what he told the ABC recently:

The detentions have destroyed my family … We can say it [has also] destroyed Uighur society … I cannot bear keeping silent [any more] because I think there's a genocide taking place in East Turkestan.

I should say that East Turkestan is the name that many Uygur people use to refer to their homeland. Mr Attawulla went on to say of the Chinese government that:

They want to erase, erase, erase your identity and our culture and to melt them into Han Chinese.

Make no mistake, these are rampant human rights abuses on a scale that the world has never seen before that are going on in China at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party government. We used to join economic boycotts against regimes who did this kind of thing, albeit on a smaller scale. For example, economic sanctions and sporting sanctions were applied against South Africa during the apartheid era. Let me tell you: what the Chinese government is doing to its own citizens at the moment dwarfs anything that Australia has applied sanctions for in recent history, and it's beyond time that we had a mature debate about how we as a country respond to human rights abuses like these.

In contributions to this debate, we have heard Mr Duncan Lewis, the outgoing director-general of ASIO, saying that foreign influence and interference is an existential threat to our country and a threat far more serious than the threat of terrorism. We know there's been significant influence exercised in Australian universities by the CCP, and we know that there's been significant influence exercised by the CCP in Australia's major political parties. We had the $100,000 in cash in the Aldi bag that was delivered to the New South Wales branch of the ALP. We saw the slow-motion train-smash that ended former senator Sam Dastyari's political career, and I genuinely don't believe that the Liberal Party is immune from this kind of influence. Senator Patrick has made some observations in his speech about that.

I want to speak briefly about my home state of Tasmania. It's worth pointing out that President Xi actually visited Tasmania in 2014. Just before he arrived, I wrote an opinion piece for the Mercury newspaper, in which I raised some of my, and the Greens', human rights concerns with the Chinese government, but I also raised concern that President Xi wasn't coming to Tasmania for the wilderness or the pinot noir but that he was coming to case the joint. I stand by that prediction, because what we've seen since that visit in 2014 is an exponential increase in the interest of the Chinese government in Tasmania.

At the time, I described—accurately, by the way—the Chinese government as a 'junta', and I was called a xenophobe by then opposition leader and current Premier of Tasmania, Will Hodgman. Calling critics of the Chinese government racists and xenophobes is straight out of the playbook of the Chinese Communist Party. It is what they tell their operatives in foreign countries to do. So I took that as a compliment and I stand by my description of the Chinese Communist Party as a junta, because it came to power using armed force and retains its grip on power using not only armed force but also new digital technologies as tools to repress its own people.

I want to say one other thing about Tasmania. Down in Tasmania, we are on the frontline of CCP influence. Because of President Xi's visit in 2014, there has been significant interest—and significant purchase of land—by private companies and individuals, many of which are bankrolled by the Bank of China, which is totally under the control of the Chinese government. We need to make sure that we have the debate in a mature and rational way, of course; but we need to be on guard, not only in Tasmania but right around Australia, about the influence of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government in this country.

I want to end with a prediction. At some stage in the future—and I hope it's soon—Australians will look back on today's debate and they'll wonder how the Senate could have walked past its responsibility to conduct this inquiry. They will wonder what influence or control or threats were issued or exercised on our major political parties—the Australian Labor Party, the Liberal and National parties in this country—that they would not support an entirely reasonable and rational proposal for this inquiry put forward by Senator Patrick. They will wonder what cost to Australia's strategic, economic, cultural and security future will be imposed because of a cowardly failure by the major parties to stand up and do their job in this place.

9:04 pm

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

I thank senators for their input in this debate. Just going to the government's comments about the fact that this is a complex relationship with China, I don't disagree with that statement for a moment, but it's because of that complexity that we don't simply want to leave suggestions and perspectives only to government departments. Government departments don't always see some of the things that other Australians might. Government departments don't always get it right—and I mean that respectfully. We would benefit from the submissions of many. We would benefit from hearing from many. Indeed, there could even be opportunity for the committee itself to visit China to get a close and up-front perspective, perhaps presented to it by the Chinese government.

Labor's solution to this I find quite disturbing. We are facing a fairly significant change in our foreign, economic and strategic policy, and their response to that is that we should all have private briefings. We should all sit in a room and just listen to what government agencies tell us, well away from the earshot of the Australian public, who would be most interested in this particular topic because it is a most important relationship. I take Senator Roberts's point about political institutions, and perhaps 'any related matters' might cover that, but thank you for that consideration.

I'll just close off with a couple of rhetorical questions. I just wonder why it was okay in 2005 and 2006 for the Senate to conduct an inquiry into China, quite respectfully. What's changed that we can no longer do that? Certainly we know the importance to Australia of China has changed. I just wonder whether or not, if I had moved a reference motion for an inquiry into the United States and our relationship with the United States, we'd have, perhaps, a different response from government and the opposition. Just listening to people kind of made me think, 'Why does China fear such an inquiry?' I'm not sure it would. Why would the government and the opposition not go down this pathway? Is there something that the Chinese fear? I think we should think about that. More importantly, why is this chamber not going to support a comprehensive inquiry into what I consider to be the most important relationship we will have—certainly economically—moving into the future? I just can't help but think there's a bit of kowtowing taking place here from both of the major political parties. With that, I put the question.

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, that's actually my job. You can commend the motion to the Senate. The question is that the motion moved by Senator Patrick for a reference to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee be agreed to.