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.

5:23 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians) Share this | | Hansard source

Australia's relationship with China is a government priority. We will continue to be clear and consistent in the management of our relations with China. We reject any attempts to politicise this. There is great benefit to our cooperation with China on issues of mutual interest. We manage any bilateral difficulties from a national interest perspective, on the basis of respect, including on issues of sovereignty, for which we make no apology. As the foreign minister has said in the parliament, all MPs, including the opposition, are able to join relevant committees and receive extensive briefings from agencies and departments.

5:24 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

This is the third time that Senator Patrick has attempted to find the agreement of the Senate to refer this matter for an inquiry. In September, Senators Gallagher and Brown explained why Labor is not supporting this referral, and nothing has changed for us since then. Also, unfortunately, what has not changed—and it was indicated in the response provided then by Senator Colbeck—is the reticence of the government to approach this matter in a sensible and a constructive way as has been suggested by Labor. It is clear that there is a strong interest across the parliament in the management of Australia's relationship with China, and there have been many expressions of this interest, including this proposal for an inquiry from Senator Patrick. But we believe that a 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. As the shadow minister for foreign affairs told the Australian Institute of International Affairs' national conference on Monday 14 October 2019:

Australia's relationship with China is complex and consequential. China is, and will continue to be, of great importance to Australia, to our region and to the world.

Senator Wong went on to indicate that the key question for Australia is how we best make the relationship work for us. How do we make it work? It is by recognising that challenges may intensify and the relationship may become harder to manage in the future.

It is reasonable and appropriate for a parliamentarians to want assurance that our national interest is being served. Access to quality briefings is critical to constructive parliamentary engagement. Labor is disappointed that the government has declined to take up our request 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. This approach reflects our desire for a calm and mature debate and the hope for a continuing bipartisan approach to the relationship.

Labor continues to believe that this is the best approach, regardless of Senator Patrick's alternative arguments. Labor has also established a caucus process for engagement of this subject, because Labor believes 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 of the government's approach. Mr Morrison needs to look beyond the next manoeuvre, stop undermining his foreign minister and trade minister, and develop a serious long-term plan for Australia's engagement in the region and in the world—a serious and long-term plan that could proactively navigate us through the strategic competition between the United States and China and to manage this new phase in our relationship with a more assertive China. All members of the parliament should advance a sensible, calm and mature discussion without seeking to exploit complexities in the China relationship for political advantage.

5:27 pm

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

This really should not be a contentious suggestion made in the form of a motion by Senator Patrick. This is, as Senator McAllister has just said, a very calm motion. It does not make any wild claims in either the surrounding material or the terms of reference; it simply asks for a series of matters that relate to Australia's relationship with the People's Republic of China to be referred to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee for an inquiry. To the Greens, it seems an eminently sensible suggestion, particularly as the opposition has been stonewalled by the government in its attempts to have some private briefings from relevant government agencies in relation to Australia's relationship with the CCP.

This should not be at all controversial. It is not a complex suggestion. This is a matter that has been the subject of significant public debate in this country, particularly in recent months and years. Senator Patrick's suggestion is a very sensible proposal to break the deadlock that now exists between the government and the alternative government in this place, the Australian Labor Party. For those reasons and others, the Greens will support Senator Patrick's motion.

I want to be very clear about a couple of things. First, the CCP is a totalitarian regime. They're engaged in a cultural genocide on the Uygur people at the moment. They have imprisoned, on conservative estimates, over a million Uygur people in so-called re-education camps, and many informed observers believe that number is actually over two million people. But it's not only the re-education camps where we've seen Uygur people incarcerated and detained. In Jinyang the prison population—this is not the re-education camps; this is the existing prison population—has spiked over 500 per cent in the last two years. That's been reported recently by The New York Times. At the same time, in fact, imprisonment rates in the rest of China have remained relatively stable. So you've got a situation where there is an ethnic cleansing, a cultural genocide underway perpetrated against the Uygur people by the CCP, a rampant disregard for human rights, a total disregard for the rule of law. We are talking about a government which oversees a court system that is far closer to a conviction factory than it is to a genuine justice system.

They've got form in Tibet, where they have absolutely invaded and attempted to destroy the Tibetan culture. They've murdered many, many tens of thousands of Tibetans along the way, I might add. And we've also got a situation currently in Hong Kong, where, for many months, brave protesters have been standing up for their democratic rights. Many of us, including me, are worried about the actions that the CCP may take in Hong Kong to put down the protesters. We have seen instances of brutality perpetrated not just against protesters but against journalists reporting on those protests.

The CCP is a government that is becoming more assertive internally, it is becoming more assertive externally, and it's absolutely time that we had an informed debate in this country and in this parliament about our relationship with the CCP and about what we are doing to respond to this internal and external assertiveness that we've seen under the regime of President Xi. If we're going to have that kind of informed debate, we need information at our fingertips. Senator Patrick's suggestion, a very calm and mature suggestion, is a very clear way forward for us to have that informed debate. The idea that the Labor Party would not support this motion today actually beggars belief. They've been completely stonewalled by the government saying to them, 'No, we're not going to have relevant agencies brief you so you can come to an understanding of the situation.' Yet they won't support an inquiry that would allow them to come to an understanding of the situation. It's difficult to conclude anything other than that Labor is happy in its ignorance on this matter because, if they genuinely wanted to know, they could support Senator Patrick's motion and we could have the inquiry that he is suggesting.

I want to make a couple of quick remarks about the relationship between the CCP and my home state of Tasmania. President Xi actually visited Tasmania in 2014, and I wrote an opinion piece that was published in Hobart's TheMercury just before he got to Tasmania. I made the point that he wasn't coming here to experience our wilderness and that he wasn't coming here to taste our Pinot Noir; he was actually coming to case the joint. And so it's turned out. I'm extremely concerned about CCP influence in Tasmania. I'm very concerned about the level of CCP investment into Tasmania and I'm extremely concerned that our state government has not yet come to grips with the challenges that this represents now and will represent in the future for my home state. I well remember standing on the Hobart domain, when President Xi was visiting, with a small bunch of Tibetan protesters when we realised that there had been chartered jets landing at Hobart Airport containing large numbers of CCP-supporting students from the mainland of Australia. They overwhelmed us with their numbers and their giant CCP-sponsored flags. I remain more concerned about my home state of Tasmania in regard to CCP influence and money than I am about the rest of our country, because we are on the radar of the CCP. It's time that the Tasmanian senators in this place stood up for more information to be shared with the Senate and the Australian people about CCP influence, CCP soft power and CCP money in this country and in my home state of Tasmania. We'll very happily and proudly support Senator Patrick's calm and mature suggestion contained in this motion, as we have in the past.

I urge two things of the major parties in this place. Firstly, to the LNP, to the government: please provide these briefings that have been requested by the opposition, and extend those briefings to members of the crossbench in this place. That would be a mature way to respond to this situation. In the absence of those briefings, I say to the Australian Labor Party: you can't just sit there complaining that you haven't got the information you want when there has been a pathway suggested to you by Senator Patrick, in this motion, that would allow you to understand far more than you currently do about CCP influence in this country and the way that the government is attempting to respond to it.

The last thing I want to say is about bipartisanship in this place. Bipartisanship between the LNP and the ALP in this place has seen over 200 pieces of legislation passed in the last two decades that take away fundamental rights and freedoms from Australian citizens. Bipartisanship in this place ought to be ended, because it is the opposition's job in a democracy to oppose. Simply agreeing with the government as they remove our rights, freedoms and liberties in this country and not standing up, and then using bipartisanship as an excuse, is letting down the Australian people. It's letting down those Australians, including my family members in some cases, who have fought and tragically died to defend the very rights and freedoms in this country that you are colluding with each other to get rid of. It's why we need a charter of rights in Australia. We are the only liberal democracy in the world that doesn't have a charter of rights, and it would be one way of ending, or at least slowing down, this ongoing erosion of rights, freedoms and liberties in Australia.

5:39 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | | Hansard source

I find myself in a rather uncomfortable position, because I do support this motion by Senator Patrick, who is a very measured contributor to this place and recognises there are difficulties facing this country that need to be confronted through the appropriate Senate committees, but I find myself having to vote on the same side of the chamber as the Greens. To me, it beggars belief that, somehow, the Greens party are now supporting individual freedoms in Australia. There is not a totalitarian regime—there is not a version of communism or Marxism or Leninism or Trotskyism or any other 'ism' that they've had—that they've never supported. They love totalitarian governments, and now we're expected to believe that somehow they're against big, centralised government. These are the people who want to nationalise industry in this country. These are the people who want to condemn those who have a different point of view as having hate speech, these are the people who encourage protesters to glue themselves to bitumen and bring traffic to a halt in the name of their own totalitarian ideology, and yet somehow we're meant to believe today that they're the champions of freedom in this place. Give us a break! It's extraordinary.

Senator Patrick, you've got my vote on this, but, really, you're making it very, very difficult when we have to have bedfellows like the Greens supporting an inquiry into the Communist Party of China. Perhaps—just perhaps—they're looking for a better blueprint to implement their own policy in this country, where they can take it over. But the simple fact is that Senator Patrick has a very good point. I understand how delicate this matter is for the government and the opposition. The Chinese government is a very important trading partner and a very important contributor to the Australian economy, and we don't want to jeopardise that. But I come back to this: the risk for Australia or the risk for any business or exporting nation if it is reliant on a single customer for its livelihood, the wellbeing of its business, the financial probity of its business or the success of its business is that the customer owns the business, because you cannot exist without it. Quite frankly, that is my concern.

My concern is that the Australian economy is becoming too reliant on the massive Chinese market. Not only is it in the area of our mining exports, where we value-add too little here and we just ship it off to China, principally, but we're also seeing it in our food supply industry, we're seeing it in our agricultural industries, we're seeing it in our education industry and we're seeing it, unfortunately, in our political industry. I hate to describe politics as an industry, but it's clearly an industry for some. What's been going on in New South Wales with the Chinese diaspora pumping bags full of cash into the Labor Party, and perhaps others, should fill us with concern. I don't buy the fact that, because a couple of senators have been drummed out of this place or because ICAC has pushed out a Labor state director or secretary, the problems have fully been uncovered. Let us not gild the lily. People don't give you $100,000 cash in a bag, after making billions as recipients of largesse of the Communist Party of China, and throw it into Australian politics for no reason. They do it for a reason. It is to gain access or influence, and we've seen just how damning that can be on individuals. We've had some in this place. There are many more, I suspect, around the rest of the country. But we don't know what we don't know.

The very starting point in all of this, as far as I'm concerned, is to establish exactly the facts about how the agencies of the Chinese government, whether they are commercial agencies or state funded or endorsed ideas, are impacting our economy. How many people are coming here and using the soft student visa program as a backdoor way of gaining permanent residency? How are they influencing our educational institutions to revise history and gloss over the 100 million or so deaths that were part of the revolution? How is it that they're saying that this is just another version of capitalism when people are oppressed and have their organs allegedly harvested, genocidal claims are being made and whole swathes of individual racial or religious groups are being interned and killed? We don't know. But what we do know is that we're seeing some of that activity here in Australia. We're hearing reports about people being threatened and intimidated and our businesses being influenced. Are those reports true?

I don't know, but I'd like to get to a starting point, and that's what this inquiry would do.

The numbers are clearly against us, but—as distasteful as it will be!—I will sit with the Greens, probably at the furthest end of the chamber to make it comfortable for both me and them—

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Yeah, thanks!

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | | Hansard source

You're welcome, Senator Siewert! But I will be joining Senator Patrick and whomever else in saying we should shine a light on this matter.

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by Senator Patrick, as amended, for the referral of a matter to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee be agreed to.