Senate debates

Wednesday, 16 June 2021


Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee; Reference

6:30 pm

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie Network) 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 30 November 2021:

The future development of Australia's relationship with the People's Republic of China.

The head of Home Affairs says the drums of war are beating with China, but the coalition and Labor don't want the Senate to look into it—again. Our largest trading partner is squeezing the bejesus out of our beef farmers, wineries and barley growers, but the major parties reckon there's no reason for the Senate to get involved. A country that is known for human rights abuses and its disdain for democracy is openly trying to influence what goes on in this chamber—they've even hacked this building on numerous occasions—but the government and opposition still aren't interested in investigating. They don't want us to look at it. They don't want us to mention the word 'China', let alone 'CCP'. They don't want us to pull up the rug and see what's underneath. They don't want us to do what I reckon 80 per cent of Australians would like us to do: to have a good look at what is going on in China. God forbid! They don't want us to go there. Here's a wake-up call! Get your boots on, because that's what most Australians want. That's what they want.

I bet that what you'll find will not be pretty. We know that, they know that, so let's just get on with it. It will not reflect well on the state of our major parties, who have been caught more than once taking money from people with links to the Chinese Communist Party. It won't look good for Defence, who have stuffed up our military procurement so badly that it's going to take a decade or more for us to build submarines that take China 18 months to bring online, which is something that is seriously wrong. And it won't look good for our foreign affairs department, who have spent months playing politics on the Belt and Road Initiative in Victoria but are too scared to touch the port of Darwin. Keep going on with it! Keep showing them who's running the show here! That's what needs to be done.

This will be the fifth or sixth time Senator Patrick and I have tried to get up an inquiry into this. We are not asking a lot. We're asking what many Australians are asking. They want to know more. Every time we've tried to get this up, the majors have voted against it. That's exactly what you've done. What are you scared of? Time and time again they tell us: 'Nothing to see here. Move it along. Let the bureaucrats deal with it.' Meanwhile one person, a senior bureaucrat, is saying: 'Hey, beating the drum here! Going to war!' Which one is it? Let the people in fancy suits at the G7s and the WTOs and whatever else have their conversations over tea and sort all this out.

This is the sad truth of this matter: the major parties won't let the Australian people have a say in what is going on here. They don't want us to get a good look at it through a parliamentary inquiry. They won't front up to the Senate and say: 'Yes, we have a problem here. Yes, it's difficult. But we trust in the key principle of Australian democracy, in our own democracy, that the people should have a say about the things that affect their lives.' This is where we're at. The Senate is a place where we are supposed to review. We are supposed to debate. We are supposed to take our time, go into detail, make it a better country. That's where our strength comes from. The way we elect people in the Senate is designed to protect the small states from being controlled by the large ones. It's a sentiment we in Australia should be familiar with—if the little guy needs some help, give a helping hand. When it works, it works well. We pass things, we block things, we debate, we turn up and we do our jobs.

This motion, this inquiry, this is part of our job, as difficult as it is. As difficult as it is, it is part of our job up here. If you are going to let fear hold you back, none of you should be here. Fear will never achieve anything, let alone get to the bottom of it. If you want fear to rule your life, be my guest—but that is not a way to run a country. This is the sad part about it all. We are trying to defend our own democratic principles from a country that's hostile to them, but our own parliament is failing to meet the standard we set for it and it is failing the people of this country by not doing what it should be doing, out of fear.

We're in terrible shape here and this has been going on for way too long. It is not going away. How many times do Senator Patrick and I have to move this motion before the coalition and Labor wake up? It is time to wake up. It will go against you in the next election, I can assure you. Go out there and have a look and listen to the Australian people. They're onto it. It's no good ignoring it, because they're already onto it. They're miles ahead of us. What we're asking for shouldn't be controversial. It's not about playing politics or making a cheap shot or looking for a headline. It is plain as day that we have a problem, and it should be plain as day that we can't do nothing about it. We cannot sit here and say: 'There's nothing to see here. We don't want to deal with this. We can't deal with this.' That is not how leaders act. That is not how our parliament in this country should act.

We can't go to war with our biggest trading partner and expect that to be cost free. We are going to pay a cost for that. But either we shut up and don't say anything and let them continue to walk over the top of us or we stand up for ourselves, we stand up for this country and we stand up for the people that walk the soil in this country. That's what we do. We have to be brave and do that. It doesn't matter what the issue is, ignoring it will never make that issue go away. It will only make it worse. That is human psych. That is how it works. Suppressing an inquiry, suppressing questions, is not how you ease tensions. You can't wish away this problem. You can't pull out your wand. It is not going away, and ignoring it is making it worse. When you wake up to that fact, it's going to be even worse still and trying to make amends the further we go along is going to be even harder. Deal with it today. We have a problem with China. Be honest about it and deal with it. Show the courage that this country needs.

We are being told here that everything's under control and we just need to leave it to the unelected bureaucrats and public servants to take care of it while we keep ourselves busy asking each other softball questions in question time. That's not how this works. This Senate is an institution of the Australian democracy. This is an institution that has been threatened by the growing aggression of the Chinese Communist Party. We have been hacked. We have had our phones, our computers and our networks here in this building hacked by the people we are pinning our hopes on for an economic recovery. How stupid are we? We're supposed to be some of the smartest and brightest up here. If that's smart and bright, God blow me over.

Even our security agencies say that there have been 500 cases of foreign agents attempting to influence Australian politics in recent months. Most of it's coming from the CCP. That's right—China. That's where it's coming from. But we are running on fear. We're running in the wrong direction. We're certainly not running the Australian way. They are actively trying to shape how our politicians behave when up here in parliament. That's what they're doing. If you can't see that, wake up or go to Specsavers and have a good look, because that is what is going on. Party agents are working their way into political offices and party fundraising events and they're collecting information and using it to their advantage against us. They are doing what they can to change the decisions that get made right here in this very chamber. They want to pull the strings on these votes, these decisions we make. They want to have a say on what we do in here. It's about time we told them that they're not getting a say in this parliament, that they're not getting a say on how to run this country. But we can't do that by being silent and showing fear. It's time to set the record straight and say: 'We don't give a stuff what the consequences are. We're not putting up with your behaviour and your threats against our own sovereign nation.'

I have sat here over the years and watched as veterans have had their lives taken from them in fighting for this country and its freedoms, while you're letting the CCP walk all over the top of us. Why is it so controversial to say that the Senate should look into this? Why is it so controversial to say that Australians have a right to know about this? It's only through institutions like the Senate that we get the ability to have an open, transparent conversation with the Australian people about what is at stake, what is at risk and what our choices are in the future. I don't think we've got time up our sleeve; I can tell you that much right now. If you're going to sit in here and think, 'This is just going to go away; I don't want to deal with it,' you're on another planet. You had better deal with the CCP and with China, and you had better do it quickly.

If the drums of war are beating, how loud are they? How far away? How long? If Australia's relationship with the Chinese Communist Party is what's contributing to that rising tension then don't we in the Senate owe it to the nation to investigate what parts of the relationship are making us vulnerable and what parts need to change? The first thing we need to change in here is to show some courage. We're an island nation. Last time I checked, we didn't have missiles all around the outside of us to scare anybody, let alone China. We have just enough troops to fill over half the MCG; that's where we're at. And I can guarantee that only about 3,000 of them are fighters—combat, they call it. If you want to sit here and see where China goes with all this then be my guest. But I would suggest we start leading on the front foot and we start controlling the situation, instead of the other way around, before it's too late to do anything, which is exactly where we are heading.

All we're asking for is an inquiry. That is it. We already know there are elements of influence of China in Australia that are positive—of course they are. But there is a lot of stuff coming from the Chinese government that scares the bejesus out of me and everybody else out there. But we won't talk about it, because we won't show that we have fear of it. There's nothing wrong with showing a bit of fear. For goodness sakes, come out and do something about it so you can defeat it. If there is a way to salvage parts of our relationship with China, that's good. If there is a way to shut down the bits that are toxic, that's great—although I don't see that happening; I think it's going to go a lot further than that.

We're asking the Senate to have a grown-up conversation with the Australian people about the problems we are facing with the CCP and China. That is what we're asking. We have problems and issues here. Like I said, the Australian people already know, and while you're sitting here ignoring it you're not looking in a good light, I can tell you. They already know; they're out there talking about it. You can put it to rest and take control of the situation and run with this inquiry. Let the truth come out. We need to start telling people what's going on and what the plan is. But we have no plan on how to deal with them, except: 'Just ignore them. Pretend they're not there. They'll go away.' They ain't going away! Let me be quite clear about this: they are not going away. And the situation is only getting worse.

How much worse do you want the situation? With whatever is left of our relationship with China, which is not much, how much further do you want this to go? How much more damage is this going to do? If it's going to do damage, great; let's blow it out of the water and let's go do it. But this slow, strangling death thing that we're doing by just saying, 'It's okay; there's nothing to see here,' is putting all Australians' lives at risk. You have no idea what their plan is for us in the future. I know something: they have military hardware we can only dream of, they can move a hell of a lot quicker than we can and they can shut down any trade they want to tomorrow. And you're not worried about that? I would be. I would be terribly worried about that, and I am. So are millions of other Australians out there, and you're doing nothing up here to settle that worry. We are doing nothing.

Here's the crossbench, having to drag the major parties, kicking and screaming, to protect this country's way of life. Why is that? Why is it always the crossbench which has to call this stuff out? Why is it that the crossbenchers are the only ones who have any courage in here? At least I'll know when my time is up that I tried; I got out there and fought for it. I'll be able to sleep at night-time. Good luck to the rest of you, and God hope that we're not at war. I know that the conversations we're having here will be hard and that it's going to be painful for some people, but it's already painful. We're capable of having sensitive conversations without falling into cruelty; we do it a lot. If we were asking for an inquiry into sports medicine, or water trading or climate change we'd have had this inquiry a long time ago. But, no, it's China, and all of a sudden Australia has lost its nerve. It has grown cold feet and is saying, 'I don't want anything to do with this; I'm done.'

6:46 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of Senator Lambie's referral motion about Australia's relationship with China. The Australian Greens support this referral, as we have supported a number of referrals in the past, because our relationship with China is a really important topic that we think deserves serious scrutiny. Our relationship with China is incredibly complex; it's exactly the sort of stuff that the Senate should be considering in a full and proper inquiry process.

Our relationship includes issues of human rights and our trading relationship, as well as the broader scope of foreign policy issues. We also think it's important to have an inquiry that actually puts the issues on the table in a careful and considered way so that we can have the debate about China in a careful and thoughtful way. And, in particularly, as part of this discussion about China, we must be loudly antiracist and fight attacks against Australians of Chinese heritage. That includes attacks from those within this chamber calling on Chinese Australians to pass loyalty tests. This inquiry would be an excellent opportunity to thoroughly consider these issues. As I said, it's exactly the sort of complex issue that the Senate should be considering.

I now want to step through some of the issues that the Australian Greens think would be covered in an inquiry, if we were to get one up. We'll start with human rights. We believe that in our relationships with any country around the world human rights should be absolutely at the core and centre of that relationship. We've been consistent in our calls for action on human rights by governments around the world, including the Chinese government. In a state visit by the then Chinese president, Hu Jintao, in 2003, Greens MP Michael Organ wore a Tibetan lapel pin to symbolise the concerns we've raised about the situation of the Tibetan people. Tragically, despite the many years that have passed since then, the human rights situation in China has certainly not got better. In fact, it has got worse.

Human Rights Watch summarised in a recent report how Beijing's repression, insisting on political loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, has deepened across the country. In Hong Kong, following six months of large-scale protests in 2019, the Chinese government imposed a draconian national security law on 30 June. This was its most aggressive assault on the Hong Kong people's freedom since the transfer of sovereignty in 1997. In Xinjiang, Turkic Muslims continue to be detained arbitrarily on the basis of their identity, while others are subjected to forced labour, mass surveillance and political indoctrination. In Inner Mongolia, protests broke out in September when educational authorities decided to replace Mongolian with Mandarin Chinese in a number of classes in the region's schools. And authorities in Tibetan areas continue to severely restrict religious freedom, speech, movement and assembly, and fail to address popular concerns about mining and land grabs by local officials. This often involves intimidation and unlawful use of force by security forces.

I have met with Tibetans, Uighurs and Hongkongers who have told me what the on-the-ground impacts of those policies are. In fact, it was only yesterday that this parliament received a delegation of Uighur Australians who told the tragic stories of the awful conditions and situations that their relatives in Xinjiang were suffering through—their sisters, husbands or other family members who were imprisoned, who were essentially in concentration camps, who were being tortured and who they hadn't heard from for years. In one case, the only reason given was that the person had travelled to Egypt. Another person had travelled to Turkey. For that, they were then placed in the indoctrination camps or were essentially imprisoned for decades.

We think that issues of human rights should be at the core of our relationship with China. Right now, we reiterate our call for the Chinese government to allow access for UN and other independent human rights observers, which is the absolute bottom line—a simple, basic step that they should take immediately. In our relationship with China, we should see action from the Australian government on a framework for targeted sanctions to address these human rights violations, wherever in the world they occur. We have seen the Australian government dragging its feet for months now on proposed Magnitsky legislation. We know that there was a letter sitting on the Prime Minister's desk months ago, and it hasn't been answered. So we need the government to take urgent action and respond to the unanimous cross-partisan recommendation from the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade that they introduce Magnitsky legislation.

As Senator Lambie was saying, this government seems to want to walk away from these issues. The issues need to be brought front and centre, and certainly having this inquiry will enable these issues to be considered in a holistic, complex way. The inquiry would be an excellent opportunity to consider our trading relationship with China, which clearly is in a position of absolute tumult at the moment.

There are clear steps that we could be taking to improve our ability to manage our trade relationship with China. The Greens believe that we should be rethinking our political economy and shifting away from a reliance on an extractive based economy to one where we add value through a strong domestic manufacturing sector powered by renewables like green hydrogen. This applies to all our trading relationships, not just China. Any reduction in our exports of fossil fuels to China, which have been forced on us by the trade embargoes that China is imposing on us, should be seen as an inevitable part of the global transition to net zero in the face of a climate crisis and actually as an opportunity to be reducing our economic reliance on unsustainable fossil fuels.

We reckon that the Australian government should be working with Australian industry to diversify our markets following the decades of focus on exports to China as the mainstay of our economic growth. There are so many opportunities. Green steel and green aluminium are some of the possibilities there. Current trade disputes demonstrate that our free trade agreements aren't worth the paper they are written on. These are the issues that should be considered in this type of inquiry. What does it mean to have a free trade agreement with China in the current situation, when they can basically just tear it up? These are the very things that we should be considering.

Moving on to our broader foreign policy, it really needs to be seriously looked at. The Australian Greens believe that in our international relations we should be promoting peace, democracy, ecological sustainability, equity, justice and human rights. This applies to our relationship with China, as it does for every other country in the world. As part of that, again, something that could be really seriously looked at in this inquiry, given the relationship between the US and China, is the very strong argument that we as Australians should be pursuing an independent foreign policy. That should include renegotiating the US alliance, because an unthinking alliance with the US means that we are not seen as an honest, independent broker in our region, including with China. Hitching our wagon to the Trump administration was a really powerful example of this, and it significantly contributed to the current dire state of the bilateral relationship that we have with China. The alliance with the US makes us less safe, not more.

Additionally, I think that, if we are going to have a focus on our relationship with China that's based on human rights, it would also include looking at the influence that we have, as Australia, while our human rights here in Australia are under question. While we continue to turn a blind eye to the ongoing injustices and racism suffered by our First Nations peoples and ignore calls for truth-telling and for treaties, while we jail innocent asylum seekers and refugees indefinitely, and while we are criminalising Australians seeking to return home, we are vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy on the world stage. We are not in a position where we can forcibly say to China, 'You need to be addressing your human rights abuses,' while these things are ongoing in Australia. The Australian government can talk about a rules based order in as many white papers, policy statements and major speeches as it likes, but, until we walk the talk, we are continually undermining our credibility.

Finally, we think that, as part of looking at our relationship with China, what we need to really keep a focus on is the need to reject racism. We need to have a strongly antiracist approach. The significant focus in the media and in this place on the threat from the Chinese government, as well as the Australian government's focus on Chinese foreign influence, has been damaging to Asian communities in Australia, to international students and to other visitors to Australia with Asian heritage. We need to keep that in mind, and we need to make sure that we are always supporting Australians and others in Australia of Asian heritage and that, when we are being critical of the Chinese government, of the Chinese Communist Party, it doesn't flow over into racism, into xenophobia and into attacks, prejudice and discrimination against people of Chinese heritage.

Asian Australians, permanent residents and temporary visa holders must be able to participate freely in all aspects of Australian society. In having this sort of debate, we believe that, if we got this inquiry up, it would be really important throughout that to continue to call out racism and champion the rights of our multicultural communities. Our relationship with China is incredibly complex, and it is exactly because of that complexity that it is a very appropriate issue for the Senate to be looking into. The Greens are very definitely in support of this motion to set up this Senate inquiry to consider Australia's complex relationship with the People's Republic of China.

6:57 pm

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

I am pleased to support the motion moved by Senator Lambie. In fact, it is the same motion, or in the same terms, as the one I proposed for an inquiry a year ago, on 10 June 2020. That proposed motion was, in turn, the sixth in a series of motions over 18 months seeking a referral to a committee on the topic of China, all of which were rejected by the coalition and Labor. Neither has offered a satisfactory explanation as to why the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee should not inquire into the future of one of Australia's most important international relationships.

I would argue that the Senate's refusal to establish an inquiry two years ago, or even a year ago, was a major lost opportunity. Such an inquiry could have engaged the full range of interests and stakeholders involved in our relations with China. The advantages of such an engagement and discussion were clear then and are even more obvious now. Again, this inquiry would be about looking at areas where there is good in the relationship but also areas that we need to avoid, fix or take action in regard to. I think that's even more important now, as we face a very challenging set of circumstances presented to us by the People's Republic of China.

A number of coalition senators and Labor senators have privately expressed to me their interest in support for an inquiry into our relations with China. Senator Kitching was once prepared to co-sponsor a motion, only to withdraw at the last minute. Senator Fierravanti-Wells did vote for this motion when it was last put to a vote, last year, and I thank her for that. In any case, we have a motion before us today.

Our relationship with China is at its lowest ebb since the late 1960s. The way forward is uncertain and fraught with difficulty as we seek to maintain a diplomatic dialogue with Beijing while defending our national interests and our sovereignty. In these circumstances, a wide-ranging Senate inquiry to report by 30 November would be useful and indeed essential to help chart the way forward, and I commend the motion to the Senate.

7:00 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 note that this is the seventh time that this motion or a similar motion has been moved. I thank Senator Lambie and, before her, Senator Patrick for moving similar motions. I want to make it clear that the Chinese people have a long and overwhelmingly positive relationship with Australia, starting in the early days on our soil before our nation was even born. From Cape York to Victoria, the Chinese people have contributed marvellously, and I've welcomed their ongoing contribution on our shores without influence from the Chinese Communist Party.

There have been many apparent conflicts of interest raised publicly between Chinese officials, including Chinese Communist Party officials and Labor MPs and between Chinese Communist Party officials and Liberals MPs and officials. Despite this, on every occasion, the Liberal Nationals and Labor senators have combined to jointly oppose this inquiry and its predecessors into the China-Australia relationship. I won't list all the many items that we have raised in the past to justify this inquiry and I won't go through them yet again; I will cover some new material. We have supported this motion in the past and we'll continue to do so until we get what the Australian people need and want.

What have both the tired old parties got to hide? Why are they putting their interests ahead of our national interest, especially because, in recent years, the Australia-China relationship—or, should I say, the Australia-Chinese Communist Party relationship—has undergone significant adjustments? It was only this week that, based on advice from the Director-General of Security, Mr Mike Burgess, the CSIRO announced that it would not renew an oceans research collaboration with the Chinese Qingdao National Marine Laboratory—which has strong military links—following an ASIO warning that the joint project could help Chinese navy operations against Australian submarines. It was during the March 2020 estimates that I raised the alarm about this danger with Mr Burgess, who responded that he was not aware of that particular research at the time of questioning. This week's response has taken 15 months to take effect.

It's apparent that these actions are designed to minimise the extensive intrusion into Australia's sovereignty that the totalitarian Chinese Communist Party government has achieved to date. Never before has the demonstrably anti-freedom, totalitarian Chinese Communist Party government flexed its muscles more than the posturing occurring today. The Chinese Communist Party has never been more active in the areas of expansionism and neo-colonialism in the economic sphere and in military realms, sometimes in the guise of building friendships with less affluent or emerging countries, as part of the Chinese Belt and Road regime. Some describe this intrusion as assaults on the sovereignty of countries. One Nation and I agree with that view.

When China was a Third World country, Australia was a willing neighbour in helping China to develop and grow. Even though much of China remains Third World, with poverty and food shortages, minimal human rights and with a massive population, despite this, and with advanced industrialisation and significant economic power, China is now approaching economic superpower status with a massive defence capability challenging the already established other superpowers.

A reasonable country would harness its abilities to assist the advancement of its people. Unfortunately, the Chinese Communist Party has taken an entirely different approach. It has taken an expansionist path that's creating tensions in the delicate balance between countries. That now threatens international relationships both economically and by way of military threat, to the smaller and even large countries around it. The path includes bullying tactics, economic threats and threats of direct military intervention when any country objects to the Communist Party's tactics on the world stage. We simply need to look at Chinese President Xi's statement directed towards Australia and the economic decisions his government makes with the intent to punish Australia for having called out the Chinese Communist Party on subjects including the source of the China virus, COVID-19, or the Chinese Communist Party's poor human rights record in persecuting the Uighurs and putting the whole nation of Tibet under house arrest. The Chinese Communist Party's economic retaliation against Australia as payback was swift. Brazenly, the Chinese government announced to the world that their economic retaliation against Australia was payback for calling for the inquiry into the source of the world's current virus crisis. China is now widely accepted as the source.

These acts are examples showing that the Chinese Communist Party still have a long way to go before being recognised as leaders of a genuine superpower. This is what the Chinese Communist Party craves: positive recognition as a genuine world power capable of performing a responsible leadership role. If the best that the Chinese Communist Party can do is to be considered a world-class bully, that's not much of a goal, and history shows that bullies always get what's coming to them in the end.

Australia is finally waking up to the Chinese Communist Party's overall plan. With the tightening of Australian national security concerns, the cancelling of the Belt and Road contract between Victoria and the Chinese Communist Party and the strengthening of ties with like-minded democratic countries, Australia is making headway in responding to the less-than-veiled threats from the Chinese Communist Party. In addition to the CSIRO's assistance to the Chinese Communist Party agency, I referred to the widespread Chinese ownership of prime Australian land and key strategic assets. The impact of Chinese influence in our universities and communities is yet to be fully considered. The Chinese Communist Party actively attempts to influence its students to not enrol in Australian universities, suggesting that the students would be at risk of discrimination. The placing of trade restrictions on the import of Australian produce, including a massive excise duty on barley, was said to be specifically aimed at damaging the export market for barley as a punishment aimed at Australian trade. Fortunately, Australian farmers are resilient and they've found new markets. But that was some stress that they could have done without.

I would hope that the Australian government continues to wind back more of these arrangements with the Chinese Communist Party that do not support Australian values. The Australian relationship with the Chinese Communist Party government will only improve when the Chinese Communist Party acts as a good neighbour and turns away from its existing destructive policies. It's beyond time to have an inquiry into the development of Australia's relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.

I welcome, as I said, the ongoing contribution of the Chinese people on our shores, but without the influence from the Chinese Communist Party. We need to restore freedoms in our country and restore our national sovereignty. We need to protect our country. We need an inquiry into the China-Australia relationship.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by Senator Lambie be agreed to.