MUNGO MACCALLUM. How good is Gladys?

According to Scott Morrison, Gladys Liu is the most innocent of innocent bystanders — a naïve and trusting immigrant, embroiled in a brutal conspiracy engineered by the evil inquisitors of the Labor Party. The worst that can be said is that she slipped (or more likely was entrapped) over an interview in which she was a little clumsy about her relationship with communist Chinese controlled bodies working in Australia. But she has issued a statement (or had it issued for her) clearing all that up, so nothing to see here.

What’s more, she used to run restaurants and even learned to play the trombone. And she survived domestic violence. Gladys Liu is a great Australia, almost a holy martyr. So all together now, once more with feeling – how good is Gladys Liu?

Well, not quite as good as ScoMo’s fulsome tribute suggests. Far from being a hapless victim, Liu is a savvy and experienced political operative and has been for the best part of thirty years. She sought Liberal preselection a number of times, and perhaps more importantly has been an energetic and highly successful bagwoman, reportedly delivering as much as a million dollars to her grateful party, even if some of that was apparently not properly disclosed.

As chairperson of the Victorian Liberal Party’s Eastern Multicultural Branch, she sought to ease investment rules to allow more scope for foreigners to buy up Australian agriculture. There have been reports, which have not been denied, that ASIO had investigated her links with Beijing.

None of this makes her in any way disloyal, but it does prompt legitimate queries over her suitability to become a member of the federal parliament – after all, others have faced similar scrutiny and in some cases have been forced to step down. And initially at least, all Labor sought to do was to get her to give a coherent explanation to the House of her position.

Morrison would have none of it, and when he could not brush the problem away, played the race card: Liu was being subjected to a grubby smear, it wouldn’t have happened if she had not been born Chinese, and as a result Labor’s campaign was an attack on the entire Chinese-Australian community.

Unsurprisingly, Labor hit back: it was Morrison who invoked race, just as he had characterised their own Sam Dastyari when he got into trouble and eventually resigned. Morrison, as is his wont, denied both of these easily demonstrable facts that he had done either.

Diversion, distraction, prevarication – of course. But it worked. By biting back, by being lured into Morrison’s chosen ground, Labor had lost the argument. If Morrison is good at anything (and there is not much, but one thing’s enough) he is the undisputed master of marketeering spin, the great manipulator of evasion and deception.

The debate is no longer about what Liu may or may not have done; it is about whether her interrogators are xenophobic, even racist. They are not, and even some of Morrison’s closest allies – think Andrew Bolt – believe that Liu still has questions that should be answered.

But they won’t be: Morrison has the numbers. How good is that?

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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