Labor is reeling after an adviser resigned amid revelations that the party bankrolled its 2016 federal election campaign with the help of up to $140,000 in donations from gold dealers linked to a multimillion-dollar tax scam.
The resignation from NSW Labor of rising star, 2016 Senate candidate and gold trader Simon Zhou, comes as respected ALP MP Anthony Byrne called for a full parliamentary inquiry into foreign interference and donations, with public hearings by the joint parliamentary intelligence committee, of which he is deputy chair.
“This has to be done, even if it involves our own side,” Mr Byrne said.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has savaged NSW Labor senator Sam Dastyari in Parliament over his June 17, 2016, press conference appearance alongside major political donor Huang Xiangmo. At the press conference, Mr Dastyari contradicted the ALP’s position on Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea.
“We now know that Senator Dastyari’s about-face on the South China Sea had a price tag attached to it, indeed a reported $400,000 was all it took for Senator Dastyari to trash Labor’s official foreign policy position,” Ms Bishop said in Parliament on Tuesday.
Last week, Fairfax Media and Four Corners revealed Mr Huang had threatened to withdraw $400,000 from the ALP after its defence spokesman Stephen Conroy attacked Beijing’s South China Sea activities.
ALP candidate and donor Simon Zhou with controversial Chinese political donor Huang Xiangmo. Photo: Supplied
Mr Zhou’s ties to a Chinese Communist Party lobby group headed by Mr Huang were detailed last week in the Fairfax Media and Four Corners investigation.
Mr Zhou’s resignation was announced by the ALP after it was sent questions by Fairfax Media about his connection to a long-running tax scam involving gold dealers. Fairfax Media and Four Corners first sought to question Mr Zhou several weeks ago.
Simon Zhou (left) with former Chinese consul-general in Sydney, Li Huaxin (second from left) and two others. Photo: Supplied
Mr Zhou said he had resigned to “focus on other priorities” and that he could not comment on his “ongoing dialogue with the ATO” because it involved “very complex” gold business dealings.
Mr Zhou co-ordinated up to $140,000 in ALP donations from several gold dealers in May and June, 2016, and was given a job as the NSW ALP’s multicultural officer, as well as a place on Labor’s NSW Senate ticket for the July, 2016 federal election.
Simon Zhou with Labor NSW upper house member Ernest Wong. Photo: Supplied
Mr Zhou is a key figure in a gold-trading operation being investigated by the Australian Tax Office and which includes collapsed companies, massive tax debts and a shelf company in the British Virgin Islands.
The ALP donations linked to Mr Zhou include a $29,000 donation declared by one of Mr Zhou’s business associates, who was accused by Australia’s tax commissioner of lying about trading gold bars in Sydney car parks at night as part of a scheme designed to avoid paying $13 million in tax.
A second gold dealer linked to Mr Zhou has been accused by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal of falsifying invoices linked to this same gold-trading scheme. This businessman, a Chinese national, declared a $35,000 donation to the NSW ALP via a gold-trading company owned by Mr Zhou.
These donations, along with a further $56,000 in contributions from related gold businesses, were collected by the NSW ALP on May 15 and 16, 2016 – seven weeks before the federal election.
Five weeks later, Mr Zhou, whose former company contributed another $25,000 to the party in late June, was announced as an ALP senate candidate.
Mr Zhou, who worked at the NSW ALP’s Sussex Street headquarters, is a close political ally of Mr Huang, a Chinese Communist Party aligned billionaire, who is a major donor to both the ALP and the Liberals.
Mr Huang was a VIP guest at Mr Zhou’s Senate ticket announcement and told China’s state broadcaster at the event that it reflected the rising status of “overseas Chinese” and the desire “to safeguard Chinese interests and let Australian society pay more attention to the Chinese”. Mr Huang also asked the NSW ALP to give Mr Zhou a job as an adviser, although the party insists he was appointed on merit.
Mr Zhou and Mr Huang entertained China’s consul-general in Sydney, Li Huaxin, on a boat cruise prior to Mr Li leaving Australia to take up a senior government post in China in April, 2016.
ASIO has confidentially expressed its concern to the major parties about donations from some Chinese Communist Party-aligned sources, including Mr Huang.
Meanwhile, in comments likely to infuriate some within the Labor Party, MP Anthony Byrne said public hearings by the joint parliamentary intelligence committee were needed to examine the past conduct of figures from both sides of politics.
“We have to have public hearings. I don’t care if it is uncomfortable for any party,” Mr Byrne said.
His call raises the prospect that Senator Dastyari – who has regularly used parliamentary committees to grill business figures about alleged impropriety – may endure a hearing about his relationship with donors, including Mr Huang.
Fairfax Media revealed last week that Mr Dastyari or his office called the immigration department four times to quiz it about the progress of Mr Huang’s citizenship application, which has stalled while it is scrutinised by ASIO.
Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten last week wrote to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seeking his support for a joint parliamentary committee on intelligence to examine foreign interference on political campaigns.
Mr Zhou could also likely face questioning in any parliamentary committee hearings.
The ATO suspects gold traders such as Mr Zhou and his associates have exploited a loophole by which GST is charged on gold ore, but not on higher-grade gold bullion. The loophole has created a sham industry in which circular or carousel-style arrangements “recycle” gold through syndicates of people, who keep the GST as well as claiming tax credits, leaving the ATO millions of dollars out of pocket.
One of Mr Zhou’s gold-trading companies, Australian Coin Exchange, collapsed this year owing the Australian tax office $2.54 million, with liquidators now examining the firm’s operation.
Mr Zhou is closely linked to several companies involved in suspected GST rorts. Two of these firms’ directors or managers, Chinese national Chris Wang and his business associate Leo Yang, filled out Australian Electoral Commission forms last year to declare donations to the NSW ALP.
A gold trading company owned by Leo Yang was declared insolvent by the Federal Court when it couldn’t pay a tax bill of $8 million following an ATO audit.
Chris Wang has been labelled a tax fraud by the ATO in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which in February ordered he pay the tax office more than $20 million. The AAT has labelled some of Chris Wang’s evidence, which included a claim about buying $143 million worth of gold ore at night in Sydney car parks, as “fanciful … inconsistent and unpersuasive”.
The Tribunal said Chris Wang’s evidence was “not reliable” about his “rather unusual business” as a “one-man company with no gold industry experience” which was “the sole customer of an unidentified entity able to supply tonnes of gold”.
Leo Yang was similarly criticised by the Tribunal for his “apparent role … directly” facilitating Mr Wang’s alleged fraud by providing allegedly doctored invoices.
The donations declared by Leo Yang and Chris Wang, and the other funds raised by Mr Zhou, raise serious questions around whether the ALP has accepted tainted money and is trading political access for donations – a claim that Mr Zhou and Labor deny.
When Leo Yang and Chris Wang were separately quizzed last week by Fairfax Media, they said they could not remember the date or size of the donations they declared.
Mr Huang has no connection to the approximately $140,000 Mr Zhou raised for the ALP in May 2016.
But a few years earlier, in November 2012, Mr Huang and two other members of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China gave the NSW ALP $500,000 in donations. The council is a branch of a Beijing lobby group operated by the Chinese Communist Party.
Six months after these donations, peaceful reunification council adviser and Mr Huang’s political ally Ernest Wong was parachuted by the NSW ALP into a state upper house vacancy created by ex-NSW ALP kingmaker Eric Roozendaal. Mr Roozendaal was subsequently employed by Mr Huang.
Mr Huang has appointed Mr Zhou as an executive of the peaceful reunification council, although his name was recently removed from the website. Mr Zhou confirmed the council had part-funded two of his trips to China.
By Nick McKenzie, Chris Vedelago, Sean Nicholls, Richard Baker
Sydney Morning Herald