Australian Media in the Asian Century

Aided by the media frenzy,the Government  blitz on China continues and Tony Abbott takes a job serving Boris Johnson.

All power to the centre!

So it’s on. Victorian premier Dan Andrews will be put in his place for making his state the soft underbelly for insertion of Chinese Communist Party control into Australia. Yesterday prime minister Scott Morrison revealed plans for legislation asserting Canberra’s right under the foreign affairs power of the constitution to vet all existing and proposed agreements with foreign governments by states, territories, local councils and government-funded universities.

The legislation would give the government power to cancel existing arrangements. According to the Coalition’s gazette, The Australian, Victoria’s participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a prime candidate. Morrison said about 130 arrangements would be scrutinised. All this vetting is to be done by a new unit in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, reporting to foreign minister Marise Payne who will have the power to terminate offending agreements.

There is no mention of any extra funding for DFAT for this, indicating a further diversion from diplomacy after recent cuts that according to The Australian’s Ben Packham week back will see two diplomats pulled out of Beijing, including one monitoring human rights, plus two from Port Moresby, and six across embassies in Jakarta, Manila, Tokyo, Mexico City and Baghdad.

The federal press gallery is applauding the crack of Canberra’s whip. “Scott Morrison is pulling rank on the premiers in one area where his powers are clear,” wrote The Sydney Morning Herald’s David Crowe. “After butting heads with state leaders over the response to the pandemic, the Prime Minister is asserting his authority in foreign policy, the national interest and the rise of China. This is a message to all leaders but to Victorian premier Daniel Andrews more than anyone, thanks to his government’s bilateral agreement with China.

It is a necessary fix to the problem revealed when the Andrews government signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative last year without consulting the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.”

Over at The Oz, Simon Benson said it was Morrison telling China that “seduction and duchessing of premiers is over” and finally bringing the “rarely used external affairs powers under the Constitution will finally bring the states and territories, councils and universities to heel on China.”

The attack on Andrews intensified this morning. Under the headline “Andrews’ eyes wide shut on China spy threat” Benson and colleague Geoff Chambers wrote how the Victorian premier had not taken up offers of briefings by ASIO chief  Mike Burgess and Office of National Intelligence chief Nick Warner. He’s not got much else on his plate at the moment, just a coronavirus outbreak and need for whatever business his state can get. Then he had the temerity to ask Morrison to supply a list of trade alternatives to China. “Nothing better shows what’s wrong with Daniel Andrews’ political culture,” fulminated Sheridan.

What happens when Australian parties want compensation for the money sunk to cancelled agreements and lost opportunities is yet to be seen. As Crowe admitted: “How it works may only be certain after arguments over commonwealth and state constitutions.” The Confucius Institutes at some 15 universities are also under threat, with no suggestion of funding for other forms of Chinese language instruction.

Presumably, the Coalition government’s existing decision to work with China on Belt and Road Initiative projects in third countries still stands, just as the contract for the lease of Darwin port to a Chinese stevedoring company will be honoured, rather than wound up and paid out.

Meanwhile assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar attended a virtual board meeting of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank on July 28 representing Australia, its sixth largest shareholder. He was full of praise for the AIIB’s aid for Covid-19 responses and its high standards of governance. Puzzingly, Sukkar is rumoured to have been behind the government’s recent decision to remove funding and tax deductibility from the China Matters institute. He hasn’t yet responded to queries giving him a chance to scotch these rumours.

Markson on the case

Fans of News Corp’s recently promoted investigator Sharri Markson will recall her stirling effort some years back as The Australian’s media reporter when she went “undercover” at the journalism schools of the University of Sydney and the University of Technology Sydney, sitting in lecture theatres and reading up academic papers to reveal that their lecturers were brainwashing students against News Corp.

This week she took a cue from US Federal Bureau of Investigations direct Christopher Wray and looked for the local angle to his pursuit of alleged intellectual property theft by the CCP through its hiring of foreign scientists under its Thousand Talents Plan.

Markson and co-reporter Kylar Loussikian produced a stupendously long (4,800 words) piece in The Australian on Monday. Headlined “China’s great science swindle” it said: “The Chinese government is ­actively recruiting leading Australian scientists for a secretive research program that offers lucrative salaries and perks but requires their inventions to be patented in China and obliges them to abide by Chinese law.”

It included brief profiles of 28 present and former scientists at Australian universities, all but three ethnic Chinese by their names, who had taken up positions at Chinese institutions under the Thousand Talents Plan, in many cases continuing with their home university roles while they did it.

There were the usual caveats, no doubt inserted on the advice of the defo lawyers, that “The Australian is not accusing anyone of etc etc” but the general picture was that universities were lax about letting their boffins go off, adding to their regular salaries, to share Australian-financed work that might have military applications in some form or another.

Coincidentally, this came a few days after the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Alex Joske published a paper called Hunting the phoenix: The Chinese Communist Party’s global search for technology and talent. ASPI noted that the US Department of State provided US$145,600 in funding, which was used towards this report. The Markson-Loussikian report added a more developed Australian angle, just ahead of Morrison’s announcement. The usual suspects – Andrew Hastie, Clive Hamilton etc – applauded.

China speaks out

Full marks meanwhile to the National Press Club for giving the Chinese Embassy a platform to defend its side of recent controversies. It sent along its best voice, deputy head of mission Wang Xining – young, shaven headed, sharply suited, and ready to bat back in impeccable English. His best line came in response to questions about Chinese influence operations: “I don’t see any reason for whining about your constitutional fragility and your intellectual vulnerability.”

Predictably, Wang got a bagging the next day from China hawks. The Australia’s Greg Sheridan wrote he’d said many things that are patently ridiculous” while the Hudson Institute’s John Lee wrote in the same paper that “the deputy ambassador talks about ‘fair play’ and ‘goodwill’ with no sense of irony.”

Double standards on leaks?

In Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on Monday, veteran tabloid reporter Natalie O’Brien managed a small break-through against the Chinese spy hunt. She wrote that lawyers for Labor state MP Shaoquett Moselmane were demanding an investigation into whether the Australian Federal Police, ASIO, or the office of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton deliberately tipped off the media ahead of police raids on the politician’s home.

The lawyers were asking the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, the Federal Law Enforcement Ombudsman and the AFP professional standard group to hunt down the person who revealed the “sensitive police operational details” — as well as Moselmane’s address.

Sydney law firm Prominent Lawyers claim the media was outside Moselmane’s home in Rockdale before the AFP entered his home, and the tip-off could only have “come from a member of the government or someone employed by the government”.
The letters said the attendance of the media “smacked of tactics that resulted in a gross and fundamental breach of privacy”.

Rule Britannia!

While on the subject of foreign influence, what to make of former prime minister Tony Abbott’s recruitment to Britain’s Board of Trade? The precise role is unclear, but some reports suggest it could be as important as chairing the advisory panel alongside the trade secretary, Liz Truss.

Somehow Abbott got clearance from Peter Dutton’s Australian Boarder Force to visit his British birthplace and meet Truss. The news got apoplectic reaction from British Labour’s trade shadow minister Emily Thornberry: “I am disgusted that Boris Johnson thinks this offensive, leering, cantankerous, climate change-denying, Trump-worshipping misogynist is the right person to represent our country overseas. And on a professional level, this is someone whose only experience of trade agreements was turning up to sign the treaties Andrew Robb negotiated for him.”

Back here it makes one wonder what happened to the former leader who said his government would be about “Jakarta not Geneva” and tried to get the Australian Navy to buy Japanese-made submarines. But he was also one for the “Anglophone” connections, and buried instinct seems to have kicked in. Menzies being made Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports when he stepped down was one harmless thing. When Australia gets down to negotiating its FTA with post-Brexit Britain, Abbott will be coaching the other side, it seems.

On September 12, no doubt Tony and Boris will be singing along at their TV sets when the BBC Symphony Orchestra plays “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Britannia” at the virtual Last Night of the Proms concert. Swift action by Boris got the anthems restored after a dastardly female Finnish conductor tried to drop them.

As our leaders depart to the comfort zone of old empire, Alexander Downer and now Tony Abbott, what an example for the younger people left behind trying to apply their words about finding security in our region, not from it?

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Hamish McDonald has been a correspondent in Jakarta, Tokyo, New Delhi and Beijing, and was Regional Editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong and Foreign Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He has won two Walkley Awards for reporting from Asia and was made an Inaugural Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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