MICHAEL PASCOE. What’s the story behind the Dastyari story?

Dec 5, 2017

What do leaking spooks, a dashed Dastyari and a dubious donor say about our most important trade partner?

A week after the release of a foreign affairs white paper that left unresolved how Australia can simultaneously ride the Chinese dragon and American eagle, a fool politician demonstrated just how uneasy the relationship is with our biggest trade partner, how much suspicion and distrust is just below the smiling leaders’ photo ops.

Dumb politicians never learn – time and again it’s the cover-up more than the initial folly that undoes them. Cue Senator Sam Dastyari.

Asking political donor Huang Xiangmo to pick up a personal legal bill was an extremely bad look. Directly and publicly contradicting his party’s policy on the South China Sea with Huang by his side was very foolish. Advising Huang that the pair’s phones could be bugged was merely stating the obvious as well as stupid. But then, shall we say, “fibbing” about the speech, the attempted cover-up, was sacking material.

The demise of “Dasher” Dastyari is a great story, as reported by Fairfax Media’s investigative and political team. But the story of the story –  where it came from, how it airs the Australian government’s covert distrust of Beijing and indicates the level of spying on Chinese business figures here – is also intriguing.

And it’s important from an economic and business perspective. Much of the current upturn in the Australian economy is dependent on Beijing’s goodwill. We now earn more from foreign tourism and education than we do from shipping iron ore, more than from all our agricultural exports. China is our biggest source of foreign visitors and students – a source than could be turned off overnight should Beijing wish to. Just ask James Packer about Chinese high rollers. There are plenty of other countries to visit, plenty of other universities in the world. Even a gentle squeeze would be “interesting”.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane – a close watcher of our spooks and no fan of getting pally with China’s current regime – believes local Sinophiles have been warned

“Australia’s intelligence agencies, with the encouragement and facilitation of the government, have sent a clear signal to the China lobby active in Australian public affairs: you and your connections to the Chinese regime are being monitored and you will be publicly exposed if you embrace Beijing too closely.”

Attempting to read between the lines of the Dastyari story, our domestic spooks seem to be having the most fun since the ALP’s former national secretary, David Combe, was friendly with Valery Ivanov, the Soviet Embassy’s first secretary back when the Hawke government was young.

It’s not the cold war of 1983, but there is certainly some chilly skirmishing. We seem to be moving closer to looking for Reds under beds again.

The role of Senator Michaelia Cash’s office in instigating and promoting the AWU raids last month – using government investigative and security forces for political ends – has made it easy for conspiracy theorists to see something sinister in the Dastyari story blowing up during the Bennelong by-election campaign. Hadn’t Senator Sam been campaigning with the Labor candidate? The Twitterverse has been quick to react.

The plot thickens, or thins, with the Daily Telegraph reporting that Huang’s former interpreter – who was present during the “tapped phones” warning – is now working as a volunteer for the Liberal Party during the Bennelong by-election.

Oh, a byzantine Oriental plot with Huang playing both sides, as he does with his donations, or just  a disgruntled former employee? Or something else?

Leaving aside any possible political leaking, there could be a bigger question about what game our conservative-and-Washington-leaning spooks might be playing on their own initiative.

As an old hack, I found the coyness in the reporting about the source of the Chinese press conference tape intriguing. If it had merely come from a Chinese journalist attending, you might think it would have been thus reported. The stories include lines such as

“Fairfax Media has confirmed that intelligence collected by national security officials corroborates that…

“Fairfax Media has confirmed that security officials have gathered intelligence that Dastyari…

“According to three serving or former national security sources…

I asked Fairfax investigative journalist Nick McKenzie:

“Can you tell me where the tape of the presser came from? Are Australian government security forces giving up surveillance information on Dastyari? Are people in government ministers’ offices briefing on Dastyari? Are non-Australian security operatives providing material on Dasher?”

McKenzie replied:

“Those who get into guessing games about sources usually get it wrong. I of course would never reveal sources. But if you’re implying we’ve been used for political purposes, you are wrong. The assumption inherent in your questions is wrong. And it would be wrong to use my refusal to reveal sources to advance your theory.”

Which is an entirely reasonable and ethically sound response – I would expect nothing less from him. And if Nick McKenzie says the Dastyari story isn’t a political drop, it’s not a political drop.

Which inevitably leaves plenty of intrigue about what our local spooks are up to or what other forces are at play to see what seems to be covertly-gathered intelligence involving an opposition politician, even one as demonstrably flaky as Dastyari, turn up on the media.

There is a story here about the story that, due to the necessary protection of sources, can’t be known. And it’s in that vacuum of implied surveillance and mistrust that our China relationship officially swims with our diplomatic, intelligence and political community, as demonstrated by the White Paper.

The neatest summary I’ve seen of that paper was in the AFR by a former Australian ambassador to China, Geoff Raby.

“Credible foreign policy cannot be developed in a public document with all the international sensitivities involved, and public servants cannot be expected to strike out in new directions from existing government policy,” Raby wrote.

“The whole exercise is intended to create the impression that the government of the day is thinking about the big international issues and has an active foreign policy agenda. Over the years, Australian governments have become less prepared to engage with contested ideas over foreign policy. It is telling that the report was not tabled in Parliament with a full parliamentary debate.”

On the obviously key policy issue of how to deal with China’s ascendency, Raby thought policy was being written in the rear-view mirror, the paper “wistfully looks to retain the status quo ante of the US guaranteeing Australia’s security and ensuring regional stability, while Australia prospers from China’s economic growth”.

“The white paper missed the chance to explain to Australians that the comfortable world we inhabited for the past in the post-Cold War era has gone for good. In the transactional world of Trump’s foreign policy, with powerful autocracies like China, and authoritarian leaders like those in Russia and Turkey, Australia needs a consistent realist approach to foreign policy, with the resources to prosecute it.”

Towards that ends, Australia could do with a more independent and nuanced attitude towards China and such issues as the South China Sea, rather than remaining in lockstep with the US. After all, which came first, the “pivot to Asia” and explicit encirclement or China’s predominantly defensive island building? And we happily remain blood-brothers with a regime that continues to militarily occupy part of Cuba and invades countries from time to time under dubious or false pretences.

It would be nice to have a genuinely independent review and stance, rather than chilly skirmishes over distrust, to have a reasoned debate instead of a scatter-brained Senator occasionally going rogue.

The ALP for decades has had to deal with differing views on Israel and Palestine. Differing views on China also need to be aired – without spooks suspecting the worst. Our economy depends on it.

Michael Pascoe, a veteran of more than four decades in print, broadcast and online journalism, is a business and economics contributing editor  for Fairfax Media.







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