Labor has targeted Scott Morrison over the credentials of Chinese-born MP Gladys Liu, asking what steps he had taken to ensure she was a “fit and proper” person to sit in parliament.
In question time on Wednesday, the shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, led the attack on the government over Liu’s alleged links to the Chinese communist party, but most of the opposition’s questions on the MP’s background were ruled out of order.
Morrison defended remarks made by a Liu in a widely condemned interview with Andrew Bolt on Tuesday night, saying her position on the South China Sea could not be compared to remarks made by the former Labor senator Sam Dastyari.
“Not only was he a … shadow minister … in the executive of the opposition at that time, he seems to forget the fact that money changed hands between the then senator Sam Dastyari – money changed hands, and his position was bought by that,” Morrison said.
“He was caught in his own web of corruption, Mr Speaker. He should have resigned, and he did.”
Asked several times on Tuesday night if she believed China’s actions in the South China Sea amounted to theft and were unlawful, Liu said it was “a matter for the foreign minister”.
“I definitely put – I would put Australia’s interests first, and that’s exactly what I have been doing,” she said.
“My understanding is a lot of countries is trying to claim ownership sovereignty of the South China Sea because of various reasons, and my position is with the Australian government.
The foreign minister, Marise Payne, was also asked in the Senate if she was satisfied that Liu was “fit and proper” for the seat.
“Any suggestion that that is not the case is offensive,” Payne said.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Liu said she “should have chosen her words better” in the interview that canvassed her views on China and in which she repeatedly refused to criticise the regime of President Xi Jinping.
Liu, the first Chinese-born Australian MP, said she had cut ties with various Chinese institutions with links to the Communist party, and was conducting an audit to make sure no organisations had made her an honorary member without her knowledge.
“I am a proud Australian, passionately committed to serving the people of Chisholm, and any suggestion contrary to this is deeply offensive,” Liu said.
“As a proud Hong Kong-born Australian I do not underestimate the enormity of being the first Chinese-born member of Parliament.
“I know some people will see everything I do through the lens of my birthplace, but I hope that they will see more than just the first Chinese woman elected to Parliament. I hope they will see me as a strong advocate for everyone in Chisholm.”
A political storm has erupted over Liu’s alleged links to the Chinese Communist party after the ABC reported that a Chinese government online record listed her name as a council member of the Guangdong provincial chapter of the China Overseas Exchange Association between 2003 and 2015.
The association was an arm of the Chinese government’s central political and administrative body, and has since been merged with the Communist party’s propaganda arm, the United Front Work Department.
In a Sky News interview with Andrew Bolt on Tuesday night aimed at hosing down the allegations, Liu said she could not recall if she was a member of the group and struggled to answer a series of questions about China’s activities in the South China Sea.
Defending the interview on Wednesday, Liu said she was a new member of parliament and would be “learning from this experience”.
“Australia’s longstanding position on the South China Sea is consistent and clear,” Liu said. “We do not take sides on competing territorial claims but we call on all claimants to resolve disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law.
“Our relationship with China is one of mutual benefit and underpinned by our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. China is not a democracy and is run under an authoritarian system. We have always been and will continue to be clear-eyed about our political differences, but do so based on mutual respect, as two sovereign nations.”
In an attempt to clarify her membership of various Chinese organisations, Liu said she had been honorary president of the United Chinese Commerce Association of Australia, honorary president of the Australian Jiangmen General Commercial Association in 2016, and an honorary member of the Guangdong Overseas Exchange Association in 2011.
She said she no longer had links with the organisation, and pointed to similar links held by Jennifer Yang, the candidate preselected by Labor to run against her in Chisholm.
“I have resigned from many organisations and I am in the process of auditing any organisations who may have added me as a member without my knowledge or consent,” Liu said.
“Unfortunately some Chinese associations appoint people to honorary positions without their knowledge or permission. I do not wish my name to be used in any of these associations and I ask them to stop using my name.”
Labor was expected to target the government over Liu’s interview in parliament, comparing her remarks on the South China Sea to those made by the Labor senator Sam Dastyari, which ultimately led to his resignation from parliament.
Penny Wong, the party’s shadow foreign minister, said Liu’s suitability as an MP was now a “test for Scott Morrison”.
“There have been questions raised for some time about whether Ms Liu is a fit and proper person to be in the Australian parliament,” Wong said.
“This is a test for Scott Morrison. He needs to come to the parliament, make a statement and assure the Australian parliament and through them the Australian people that Gladys Liu is a fit and proper person to be in the Australian parliament.
“I can recall the Liberal party making Sam Dastyari a test of Bill Shorten’s leadership; well, this is Scott Morrison’s test.”
Dastyari also weighed into the controversy, saying it was clear Liu needed to answer “some serious questions”.
“Her statement is shocking,” the former NSW senator said on Twitter. “She should be held to the same standard that I was – a standard the PM set. I resigned. I took responsibility. That was the right decision in my circumstances.”
By Sarah Martin