Tuesday, 3 December 2019
Xenophon, Mr Nick
I know that all senators take an interest in the welfare of their former colleagues, so I thought I should update the chamber on the latest activities of former senator for South Australia Nick Xenophon. Those who served with Senator Xenophon will remember him as a crusader for good ethics and proper governance in this place. Indeed, in his maiden speech he said that he:
… tended not to see things in terms of Left or Right. Instead, I try to think about what is right and what is wrong.
He was often the first to call out the pernicious influence of money in politics and to call for greater scrutiny and oversight of lobbyists. So it came as a surprise to learn yesterday that his new law firm had signed up a big new client: Huawei.
More on Huawei in a moment. First, I will speak about Mr Xenophon's new firm, which was launched in August with his usual media fanfare. In articles promoting the firm, Mr Xenophon and his business partner boast of their political experience. Their website has the tagline 'Where law, politics and media converge'.' They offer 'political advocacy where required'. Yet, they do not appear on the lobbyist register. In his interviews yesterday, Mr Xenophon said that, despite taking on a new foreign client, he wouldn't be signing up on the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme because he didn't plan on having any contact with politicians. But contact with elected representatives is not the only criterion for the scheme. Another is communications activities 'for the purpose of political or governmental influence'. It is hard to imagine what purpose Mr Xenophon has been engaged by Huawei for if it is not to achieve their publicly stated goal of changing government policy towards the company.
Huawei is of course a company that, on a bipartisan basis, was rightly banned by successive Labor and Liberal governments from participating in the rollout of the National Broadband Network and the 5G network, thanks to advice from security agencies. Indeed, as a senator in 2017, Mr Xenophon himself described a decision by the Department of Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to purchase Huawei phones as 'bizarre'. It is a company that is facing charges in the United States right now for stealing trade secrets, bank fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and violating sanctions to do secret business in Iran. It is a company which, in February this year, attempted to silence a think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Huawei wrote to its business partners, who are also sponsors of ASPI, in a blatant attempt to use its commercial leverage to shut down scrutiny of its conduct. In France, Huawei is again trying to silence its critics, this time using defamation law. A researcher, a journalist and a communications expert are all being sued for claiming that Huawei is controlled by the Chinese government, that their CEO is a former counterintelligence agent for the Communist Party and that the company is spying on the West.
In interviews yesterday, Mr Xenophon stated that his firm may also launch legal action against critics of Huawei in Australia. This is despite the fact that in the Senate he called for reform of defamation laws and warned about the impact that they were having on public interest journalism. Huawei was also recently implicated in the mass surveillance and detention of Uygurs in Xinjiang. They supply services to police departments, local governments and propaganda outlets that are directly involved in the repression of minorities in western China. But, in the words of a UK spokesperson for Huawei:
I don't think it matters whether it is a dodgy regime. It matters what is in the law … We do not create any moral judgments on what we think is right or wrong.
When former senator Stephen Conroy was employed by Responsible Wagering Australia after he retired from politics, then Senator Xenophon labelled it a cheap insurance policy on the part of the industry and proposed a five-year ban on retired ministers from doing any lobbying. He went on to say:
… if you're a former MP, whether you're a minister or not. I think it's not unreasonable to disclose how much you're getting paid and how much lobbyists are getting paid for particular jobs.
… I think we need to know that. That's a level of transparency that I think is essential.
Unfortunately, when asked on Sky News yesterday for the same information about his engagement with Huawei, he declined to answer. Mr Xenophon is of course not the only politician to go and work for Huawei—indeed, politicians from both sides of the aisle have done so. In their defence, they are no longer associated with the company and we now know a lot more about its activities than we did a few years ago.
Companies are entitled to representation and former politicians are entitled to earn an income, but they both must do so within the law. If politicians conduct themselves in their post-parliamentary careers in a way that blatantly contradicts what they stood for while they were in this place then they will be rightly judged harshly for it. Reputations are hard won and easily lost. If Mr Xenophon wants to throw his away representing a company so widely condemned then that is a sad end to a career of public service.