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The Fall of Sam Dastyari: The Allures of Foreign Influence

Gazing at the politics of a vassal state is interesting in one acute, and jarring sense. Voices of presumed independence are often bought; political opinions that seem well informed are, in fact, ventriloquised. The origin is always elsewhere.

Australia’s politicians represent this more starkly than most. Supposedly representatives of the people who elect them, they become the servants of different masters once in office. Whether it is the large party machines that often back them, drawing and quartering their individuality, or a powerful lobby that threatens and cajoles them, the Australian politician is at the mercy of various earthly and often nasty powers. The one judge of the matter, the public, is left out.

The fall of Labor Senator Sam Dastyari, who had become a distraction of such proportion as to drive opposition leader Bill Shorten potty, constitutes the first conspicuous casualty of this dilemma: that of the bought politician. But it all seemed so convenient, and easy.

“Today, after much reflection,” concluded Dastyari, “I’ve decided that the best service I can render to the federal parliamentary Labor Party is not to return to the Senate in 2018.” His “Labor values” had told him like a high gospel power that his continued presence in the party room had detracted “from the pursuit of Labor’s mission”.

Dastyari had certainly bumbled and bungled his way into a corner so narrow that no tomfoolery could extricate him. Excuses that had been made in the past (oh, cheeky Sam; or what a lark) had run out of steam.

The list of grievances against him had become a lengthy one. Over a year ago, it was revealed that he permitted a company owned by Huang Xiangmo, with claimed links to the Chinese communist party, to foot a legal bill for his office. Such a donation, as it was termed, saw him resign from the front bench. (It is worth noting that Huang had donated generously to the Liberal Party as well – a far from negligible $50,000 to the Victorian branch in November 2014).

Then came the revelation, scenting of a targeted intelligence leak, that the senator had been cautionary to the billionaire prior to a meeting: leave the phones behind, he suggested, as they were surely surveillance targets.

But of all such detractions and transgressions, an umbrella theme of sorts had emerged. Dastyari was to be crucified for being too close to a power that is both boon and bugbear for Australia. His behaviour had revealed a dark future, one of Chinese influence edging out US suasion. In Australia, this has assumed something of a binary idiocy, the either/or of allegiance. If you are to be bought, be bought by a power that is approved by the Canberra mandarins.

In an age where the snippet and tweet comprise narratives and the basis of whole worlds of presumed knowledge, Dastyari was probably best off coming clean from the start. A molehill, in time, became a mountain of immense proportion. His flirt with China became an embrace, then a sordid tryst.

The news cycles and social media buffoons did the rest: he had become, according to cartoonish villain and immigration minister Peter Dutton, a double agent. Attorney-General George Brandis claimed the senator had been “suborned or compromised” by China. He was pro-Chinese, going against the line of his party and that of government policy on the South China Sea.

A reading of his now notorious speech on the subject suggests that he was buying into a heresy Australia’s politicians will never be forgiven for: stepping away from the teat of an approved empire. Rather than coddling a Chinese view in any specific sense, he was, more importantly, insisting that Australia stay out of any future territorial disputes China might have over the territories. But, too not have a view on the subject was very much the same as having one.

This would effectively mean a form of what international relations theorists like to term decoupling, a removal from a future US-China confrontation, a distancing from the tight grip of the Washington establishment.

Dastyari might have left it at that. The sin had been committed. Shorten insisted that the Turnbull government stop its relentless haranguing, which included a threat to bring Dastyari before the privileges committee to explain a congenital problem of Australian politics: the influence of foreign donations.

But, being the figure that he is, a misjudgment was lurking behind the corner. Dastyari went further, obviously showing that he believes the Chinese case to have legs. Rather than wishing to be a heretic, he began showing signs that he was becoming a devotee.

This devotion came in the form of pressuring colleagues within his party to avoid meeting certain activists in Hong Kong concerned with Beijing increasingly rough hand. According to Fairfax media, he “repeatedly” warned Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek that her meetings with pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong in 2015 “would upset figures in the Chinese community in Australia”.

What then, of the other stone throwers in Parliament? There are strong pro-US views held without equivocation, and not even a volatile president in Washington will shake them. There are also firm views, not to mention allegiances, for Israel. Both powers have vast portfolios of purchased, and assured opinion, among the country’s parliamentarians.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has certainly made a degree of hay from this crisis. Hypocrisy has been concealed by legislative acumen. “Foreign powers,” he explained on announcing new proposals banning foreign donations and making politicians declare their non-Australian loyalties, “are making unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process, both here and abroad.”

The legislation is modeled on the US Foreign Agents Registry, placing the onus on individuals to declare whether they are in the employ or acting on behalf of, a foreign power. “If you fail to disclose your ties,” explained Turnbull, “then you will be liable for a criminal offence.”

The case of Dastyari might well have been made a more universally applicable one.  Instead, both major parties are now burying it, believing themselves to be high minded and, worst of all, independent. The suggestion by Turnbull that foreign influence and meddling lurk as rising menaces errs in one crucial respect: presuming that the present is exceptional. With a state like Australia; the past and the future is in the pockets of other powers, declared or otherwise.


10 comments

  1. pierre wilkinson

    Let those on the right declare all their donations from the Chinese community and see what mischief can be made from that.

  2. David Bruce

    Yes PW, and find out what national interests were sold off in return for those donations. The cost of rewiring the ASIO building would be minor compared to the other trades! China is a country which has a rich history as a trading nation. They have the largest population on the planet. With 9 billion people on the planet in 2050, maybe we can learn some lessons from them about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs? The other option is to allow the Western nations to reduce the population to less than 3 billion to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Go figure!

  3. Ill fares the land

    I suggest that the simple reason Labor didn’t express the appropriate level of outrage over the even more overt corruption and subjugation to Chinese interests displayed by Andrew Robb and why even now Robb’s acts have received very little media and political scrutiny is Labor has its own skeletons in the closet.

    Clearly, a donor seeking to influence government decisions and to obtain influence, even covertly, will donate more to the sitting government because that offers the greater chance that something will be done, but will also throw a few morsels in the direction of the Opposition because one day they could be in government and you want all of the connections in place. It is true that politicians cultivate relationships on both sides because one day you may need to be able to call in a favour from the other side (or one day get a nice cushy foreign posting), when those from your own side may only be too happy to knife you in the back to gain political advantage. Of course this all goes to how greedy, self-serving, corruptible and corrupt our politicians and the political system are in this country.

    Logically, a foreign government that places students in Australian universities as spies to report any dissident behaviours by other students that are not pleasing to the foreign government and to report on views expressed by academics is hardly going to stop at that. China wants to infiltrate every possible area to ensure that no-one speaks out against it or that it can bully those who show signs of dissent or opposing views, and that it achieves its political, cultural and economic aims.

    Both parties have behaved atrociously in accepting foreign donations in the first place, but the LNP has a much stronger case to answer than Dastyari. In part, that is solely because it is in government, but more importantly, a decision like the leasing of the Darwin port for 99 years was a phenomenally stupid move – it was never in Australia’s interests and showed the US that Australia can’t be trusted as an ally. Dastyari is a grub, no doubt (he was an Obeid protege so how is it possible he isn’t) and his job of raising funding left him open to corruption – a kind of “the end justifies the means” approach and for which he has suffered the deserved penalty, although the NSW right faction will still look after a loyal servant.

    If the LNP had the nerve to set up an ICAC, Chinese generosity towards Robb and Bishop to name bu two would have to be scrutinised.

  4. Jon Chesterson

    I think this article misses the point, the elephants in the room. Compared to Dastyari, Liberal Ministers have committed far more serious sins on the subject and complaint he is accused of. But because they are in power they are practically untouchable and have ASIO, AFP and Public Service working for them, double standards and secrecy. This includes, donations, size of donations, disclosed, undisclosed, contacts, business meetings, and the list goes on. It also ignores the greater interference from and by the US, who use Australia as a defacto State or dependent territory, unlike China which recognises our sovereignty clearly and unequivocally. I am far more concerned about US interference and invasion in Australian domestic, economy/trade and business affairs, which is ten times the size and in favour of US interests than Australian. And you really have to be concerned given Trump at the helm. So no this article fudges the truth and fails the balance test. Dastyari has been hung drawn and quartered like we treat refugees, and for an Australian senator, one of our own to be treated this way, is shameful, criminal, it belittles our democracy to partisan and commercial interests, it mocks our country!

  5. paul walter

    ” targeted intelligence leak”.

    Oh yes, getting too risky re Bennelong, so had to pull this out of the Gretch hat. Also note how little attention msm paid to LNP examples far worse.

  6. Ken Randall

    This article is turgid, and it is difficult to know what it is saying. That Australia should not try to be independent?

  7. Vixstar

    Chairman Mal fròm the Huang Dynasty is quite litterally shitting his pull- ups constantly he is about to loose his little empire and his reputation of a great leader haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

  8. paul walter

    The comment from Ken Randall is baffling. Quite obviously, from an actual read, the opposite was being suggested.

  9. guest

    This article reads in part like a Coalition accusation against Dastyari. Nowhere does the author explain how or why security people knew and reported what is claimed to be an action against national security; to wit, telling someone to turn off his phone.

    Then there is the matter of someone reporting what Dastyari is supposed to have “repeatedly” said to Plibersek.in 2015 that talking with a HK democratic activist would “upset figures in the Chinese community in Australia.” So who are these “figures” in Oz. and why do they matter? And is there any other reason why Dastyari would warn Plibersek? For example, that Plibersek could be accused of interfering in Chines politics? Or that the activist could be accused of colluding with a politician from a foreign country?

    So who was the whistle-blower and when was this repeated ‘indiscretion’ reported? Besides that, the meeting with the activist never occurred.

    So we have this inflated claim that in the case of the advice to turn off the phone was the revelation of “secret and confidential information” which makes Dastyari a “double agent”. The language is extraordinarily inflammatory, designed to ramp up any accusations accompanying.

    So when Dastyari suggests that Labor let China make its own decisions about islands in the South China Sea, he is accused of changing Labor and Federal policy. Is that what has happened, that policies have been changed? And is Dastyari in a position to actually change Labor or Federal policy? The whole thing seems to be rather over-egged.

    The Coalition calls itself a “broad church” which allows vigorous discussion, and no one is more vigorous in his criticism than the former PM. But no one suggests that he is some kind of traitor. What does Abbott think of Turnbull speaking in Mandarin?

  10. Wam

    Rapid risers lack foundations to hold them up.
    Sam was persecuted for being a short, muslim, labor twit.
    Is there a shiort liberal twit?

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