In the days after Labor senator Sam Dastyari had a $5000 legal bill paid by a Chinese billionaire he asked a series of pointed questions at a Senate estimates hearing which were sympathetic to Beijing’s foreign policy stance.
The line of questioning raised eyebrows within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at the time, as Senator Dastyari’s inquiries closely resembled China’s stated position on issues concerning Australia.
At the hearing on October 23, 2014 the Senator questioned the then head of the Department, Peter Varghese on any economic fallout if Australia was to purchase its new fleet of submarines from Japan, a move opposed by Beijing.
“Is there a concern … where and how we purchase our submarines …. has potential consequences for our relationships with other nations in Asia and, in particular, China?” the Senator asked.
At the time Japan was the strong favourite to win Australia’s $50 billion contract for new submarines, despite strong opposition from China which viewed the deal as a quasi-defence alliance to contain its influence in the region.
During earlier hearings Senator Dastyari hinted Australia should be less vocal about Beijing’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea and questioned if Australia would be punished by China economically for increasingly close ties with Japan.
Asked on Wednesday whether he had been asked by any party to raise these issues, Senator Dastyari said “no” in an emailed response.
However, the pro-Beijing line of questioning was noted by China specialists in DFAT at the time, according to one source.
The estimates hearing in October 2014 came just days after Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo, who has close links with the Communist Party, paid the $5000 bill for Mr Dastyari to settle a legal case from his time running the NSW Labor Party.
Mr Huang would later write “capital” or money was the “mother’s milk” of politics in Australia and the US, in an article for China’s state-run Global Times newspaper.
The payment by Mr Huang was disclosed by Senator Dastyari on November 20, 2014, but it would be a further four months before it was first reported by Fairfax Media.
During an earlier hearing in February 2014, Senator Dastyari questioned whether the government had double standards in dealing with China.
The Senator asked why China’s ambassador was called in by DFAT and given a “formal and public rebuke” after Beijing created an Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea, but a similar response was not taken after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.
“Why wasn’t there a similar process undertaken with Japan over Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visit if both of them are contributing to tension in the region?” he asked.
The Senator later said Mr Abe’s visit was “highly offensive”.
The Yasukuni Shrine honours Japan’s war dead including convicted war criminals and visits by politicians are considered deeply offensive in China.
In a question on notice to DFAT following the hearing, Senator Dastyari referenced a Chinese foreign ministry statement which said Australia’s response to the special air zone in the East China Sea had damaged relations.
Asked about the 2014 estimates hearings on Wednesday, Mr Varghese, who is now chancellor at the University of Queensland, said while he did not find Senator Dastyari’s questions “odd” at the time, “now they probably look a bit more interesting when you patch the time line together.”
However, he said he could not speculate on Senator Dastyari’s motives.
“I think it is entirely legitimate for the senators to ask questions about government policy.”
A joint Fairfax Media/ABC investigation revealed this week that spy agency ASIO had briefed the major parties about the risks of accepting donations from property developers Huang Xiangmo and Chau Chak Wing because it may pave the way for Communist Party influence locally.
In August last year, Mr Huang said the Chinese community would increasingly demand a greater say in Australian public life, after being used as a “cash cow” by both sides of politics.
Mr Huang, who has given more than $1 million to both sides of politics since 2012 through his Yuhu Group, said Chinese were “inexperienced in using political donations to satisfy political requests”.
“We need to learn … how to have a more efficient combination between political requests and political donations,” he wrote in China’s state-run Global Times newspaper.
It is not the first time Senator Dastyari’s has endorsed Beijing’s position on sensitive issues.
Last year he was forced to resign from Labor’s front bench when he contradicted his own party’s position on the South China Sea after another Chinese billionaire had paid a $1670 travel bill on his behalf.
The Senator has also been singled out by Communist Party mouthpiece, The People’s Daily, as one of the country’s key international supporters for its position on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
During the February 27 estimates hearing in 2014, Senator Dastyari asked Mr Varghese if the release of a communiqué by Australia, the US and Japan on the sidelines of the 2013 APEC summit “had a significant impact on our relationship with China?”
“My concern is that a statement that was prepared as a communiqué … has affected our relationship with our largest trading partner [China],” he said.
In the estimates hearing on June 4, 2014, Senator Dastyari asked Mr Varghese if then Prime Minister Tony Abbott attending a meeting of Japan’s National Security Committee had been raised as a concern by China.
“Was there concern provided to you by the Chinese government about the implications of that?” he asked.
In that same hearing, Senator Dastyari sought to flush out the Department’s thinking on the ANZUS Treaty and if Australia would be forced to side with the US and Japan in any conflict with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
“The question of what are Australia’s obligations under the ANZUS Treaty is not a hypothetical,” the Senator argued when Mr Varghese refused to be drawn on the matter.
Since entering parliament in 2013 Senator Dastyari has developed close links with the Chinese Australian community and those with connections back to the Community Party in Beijing.
In 2015 he took a 15 day trip to China paid for by the Australian Fellowship of China Guangdong Associations Incorporated, of which Mr Huang is president. This was one of two trips by the Senator paid for by organisations linked to Mr Huang.The Australian Fellowship of China Guangdong Associations was set up in September 2013. In a speech at its launch, Mr Huang said it was supported by the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Affairs Office. This is a government body, which comes under China’s State Council.
by Angus Grigg and Lisa Murray