Senator BRANDIS (Queensland—Attorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (09:33): by leave—I move:
That the Senate take note of Senator Dastyari’s statement.
What Senator Dastyari has just announced is, I’m sorry to say, not the end of the matter. Whatever human sympathy one may feel for Senator Dastyari, who, I must say, I like personally, we are, all of us, in this chamber and in this parliament, accountable for our conduct. The conduct of Senator Dastyari that has been disclosed in the last two days by the ABC and Fairfax and other media outlets falls so far short of the expectations of people who serve in parliament that it is a scandal. It is a scandal, and there is no nice way of putting that than to say: call it for what it is.
What have we learned about Senator Dastyari’s conduct in the last two days—disclosed, by the way, by serious investigative journalists writing for serious newspapers and media organisations? We already knew that Senator Dastyari had a relationship of financial dependency upon a man called Huang Xiangmo, from whom he took money last year, and after an unacceptably long delay was required to resign his position from the Labor Party frontbench then. What has been revealed in the last 36 hours are two more aspects of the relationship between Huang Xiangmo and Senator Dastyari—both of which are shocking. First of all, it was credibly alleged in the Fairfax papers yesterday, by serious investigative journalists, that at a meeting at Huang Xiangmo’s Mosman home Senator Dastyari, believing that Huang Xiangmo may be under surveillance by the Australian intelligence services, sought to interfere with what he presumed to be that surveillance. Obviously, Mr President, I cannot confirm or comment on any investigations by the Australian intelligence agencies, and I do not. But whether or not there was surveillance of Mr Huang Xiangmo is not the point. The point is that Senator Dastyari believed there might be and he advised Huang Xiangmo how to avoid it—to engage in countersurveillance behaviour.
Mr President, one has to ask the question: what is a man doing in the Australian parliament, let alone occupying a senior and influential position in the alternative government, if he is prepared to thwart what he believed to be an investigation by the Australian intelligence agencies and to advise the man who he thought to be the subject of that investigation how to thwart that investigation? How is it possible that someone who is guilty of that behaviour should remain in the Australian parliament? I don’t speculate on Senator Dastyari’s motives. It may merely have been terrible judgement or it may have been another motive. We don’t know, but we do know the conduct that has been credibly alleged, and that conduct is a scandal.
Furthermore, at the meeting at Huang Xiangmo’s home that day not only did Senator Dastyari coach him in how to engage in countersurveillance activities so as to thwart what he presumed to be an investigation by the Australian intelligence agencies; he also indicated to him that the reason he wanted to do that was that he wanted to have a covert conversation with him that could not possibly be detected by the Australian intelligence agencies—and he had that conversation. We don’t know what passed between those two men in the course of that conversation, but what we do know is that it was something that Senator Dastyari was very concerned that the Australian intelligence agencies not hear. There is no doubt about that, because he said to Huang Xiangmo, ‘Leave your mobile phone over there; let us go outside so that we can have this conversation without the risk of being detected if there is surveillance on your telephone.’ That is what has been credibly alleged. And we can only wonder why. That is the first episode that has come to light in the last 24 hours.
But even worse than that, last night, on the broadcast news programs, there was disclosed an audio of a press conference that Senator Dastyari held for Chinese-language media only during the course of the 2016 election campaign. Astonishingly, as the photographs of that press conference reveal, Huang Xiangmo was standing beside him while he gave the press conference. This was a press conference in the press conference room of the Commonwealth Parliament Offices in Sydney.
What on earth is a senior Labor politician doing giving a press conference with his financial benefactor, Huang Xiangmo, standing beside him? He is obviously giving this press conference at Huang Xiangmo’s behest. What was the press conference for, Mr President? Well, we know. The press conference was convened for the deliberate, conscious, advertent purpose of undermining the Labor Party’s foreign policy. That’s why it was given.
Only a couple of days earlier, the then shadow minister for defence, Senator Conroy, had addressed the National Press Club in the course of the 2016 election campaign. The National Press Club address in the middle of the election campaign was the signature occasion for the Labor Party to lay out its alternative defence policy for the Australian people. Senator Conroy, the then shadow defence minister—the man who, had there been a change of government, as there nearly was, at the 2016 election, would have been the defence minister—set out a very hard line on what is arguably the most difficult issue in the relationship between Australia and China. That is the question of the reclamation by China of islands in the South China Sea, the Spratlys and other island formations, to turn them into military bases. Senator Conroy said in his speech to the National Press Club that, were there to be a Labor government, a Labor government would instruct the Australian Navy to conduct freedom of navigation exercises through that contested sea, through that contested space. That was a very strong position, by the way, that Senator Conroy took. It was evidently within the Labor Party not uncontroversial.
Two days later, at a press conference convened explicitly only for Chinese-language media and standing shoulder to shoulder with the man to whom he was under a financial obligation, Huang Xiangmo, Senator Dastyari specifically and deliberately undermined that policy. He sent to China, through the Chinese-language media, the only ones invited to the press conference, a contrary message. Senator Dastyari, as we know, is a very intelligent man. He is a person deeply steeped in the ways of politics. A man like Senator Dastyari doesn’t do something like that by accident. He doesn’t do it flippantly or fecklessly. He does it by deliberate intent. And he did.
Here we have a situation in which the man who was competing to be Australia’s defence minister at the time, Senator Conroy, set out a strong position in relation to the most difficult issue, arguably, in the Australian-Chinese relationship, about navigation through the contested space in the South China Sea and the island chains that have been reclaimed. And then his senior colleague, messaging directly to the Chinese, convenes a press conference at the behest of Huang Xiangmo—who is there beside him—and sends the opposite message. Why? We’re entitled to know why Senator Dastyari undertook that deliberate, advertent act of sabotage of the Australian Labor Party’s foreign policy position at the behest of the man upon whom he was financially reliant: Huang Xiangmo.
If that were not bad enough, the fact of that press conference subsequently came to light. On several occasions, in various interviews, Senator Dastyari said: ‘I spoke flippantly. I garbled my words. I didn’t mean to undermine Senator Conroy’s position.’ They were words to that effect. He tried to make light of it, just as at that embarrassing press conference last year he tried to make light of his financial relationship with Huang Xiangmo in the first place. That excuse fell to the ground last night when—as a result of, plainly, some very thorough investigative journalism—the audio of the press conference came to light. We all heard it broadcast on the news last night. These were not flippant words. These were not words that were garbled. These were deliberate, considered and, evidently, scripted words. We know—and I’m sorry to say—that Senator Dastyari lied to the public about the press conference.
This is a deeply serious matter. Last year, I and other ministers challenged Mr Shorten to remove Senator Dastyari from the position he then had on the Labor Party frontbench. Mr Shorten delayed, temporised, dithered and dragged his heels. Eventually, excruciatingly days later, he acted and sent Senator Dastyari to the backbench, where he remained for all of 4½ months—4½ months including the Christmas and summer holiday period of 2017! When the parliament resumed at the beginning of this year, Senator Dastyari had been rehabilitated not to a position in the Labor Party shadow ministry but into a position in the Labor Party Senate management team—one of the senior executive positions in the Labor Party leadership group. That is where he has remained all year until the announcement that he just made a short while ago.
This time, it is not enough. How absurd to reflect that, in this Senate, over recent months, we have seen one senator after another forced to resign from the Senate because of section 44 of the Constitution in circumstances which have reflected no discredit on a single one of them. For a technical reason, unbeknownst to them, they were deemed to owe allegiance or acknowledgement to a foreign sovereign. Meanwhile, in the Senate, in a senior position in the Labor Party, there sat Senator Dastyari who, evidently, by his conduct, was actually under a foreign influence. But he kept quiet. He stayed mum. He maintained his position until his position was exposed by the media in the last 24 hours or so, and now he has been forced to resign—again.
This is not good enough. It is not good enough that people who are innocent of any foreign allegiance, except in the most technical way like Senator Ludlam or Senator Waters or Senator Nash or Senator Kakoschke-Moore and others, Senator Roberts, should have to resign from the Senate on a technicality but Senator Dastyari stays here on an actuality. It is unacceptable. If Mr Shorten thinks that he can staunch the damage to the Australian Labor Party by, once again, benching Senator Dastyari for—
Senator McKenzie: For the summer break.
Senator BRANDIS: Yes, for this summer. Thank you, Senator Bridget McKenzie. This is the Dastyari summer sabbatical: get caught under a foreign influence, spend the summer months on the backbench and then be recalled by Mr Shorten—this pathetically weak leader—and be re-instated onto the frontbench or into the senior leadership team.
Senator Canavan: He can write another book.
Senator BRANDIS: Thank you, Senator Canavan. The interjections keep on coming from my National Party friends. That’s right; it could be volume 2, Sam’s Chinese holiday! This is a matter of great seriousness because, in a real way, it goes to the integrity of this chamber. In a purely technical, legalistic way the resignation of seven senators who breached section 44 of the Constitution went to the integrity of the chamber—for legal and technical reasons. But it didn’t go to the integrity of those senators themselves—many of whom, of course, have very different political views from my own; not one of them behaved without integrity. But, I’m afraid to say, the same thing cannot be said of Senator Sam Dastyari, who has not once, not twice but now three times fundamentally compromised himself.
It is not good enough for Mr Shorten to think that he can overcome this latest embarrassment merely by, once again, temporarily benching Senator Sam Dastyari. It is not good enough because Senator Dastyari has not only compromised himself; he has compromised his office and he can no longer remain.
Chamber Senate on 30/11/2017 Item STATEMENTS – Dastyari, Senator Sam Speaker: Brandis, Sen George