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(Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons)

The charge that Sam Dastyari was actively undermining our security agencies is a ludicrous beat-up that could have easily been exposed by any serious journalist who looked into the story, writes Barry Hindess.

While it is difficult to sympathise with the travails of a prominent member of the NSW Labor Right, it is worth questioning the Coalition's witch-hunt against Labor Senator Sam Dastyari.

We can start by recalling Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark, which describes the Bellman who works as a guide for the Snark hunters, as saying:

Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.

The Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues, closely followed by the mainstream media, appear to have channelled their own inner Bellmen in their relentless campaign against Dastyari, accusing him time and again and on the flimsiest of evidence, of being an "agent of influence" and even "a double-agent" — in effect, of working for the Chinese.

So, what is Sam supposed to have done? Some time ago, at a press conference for Chinese-language media in Australia, he directly contradicted Labor policy over the South China Sea dispute, later denying that he had done so, When confronted with a recording of his speech, Dastyari said it did not correspond with his recollection of the event. Then, at a recent meeting with the Chinese billionaire, Huang Xiangmo, he apparently offered counter-intelligence advice to his companion, suggesting that they should talk outside, leaving their phones behind, because security agencies might be using their phones to listen in.

This last event raises a set of questions. First, who knew what Sam had said, how did they find out and who leaked this information to sympathetic media. The PM insisted during his solo performance on ABC's Q&A show on December 11 that it was not leaked by ASIO. We are expected to believe that ASIO would never lie to him, or he to us.

Almost as interesting is what the PM did not say: that ASIO had nothing to do with obtaining the story. Yet, on the basis of what is now publicly available, it seems entirely plausible to conclude either:

  1. ASIO had hacked a phone to record Dastyari's comments – in which case his warning to Huang was entirely apposite –  and subsequently passed them on to other agencies and the Government, leaving many non-ASIO personnel in a position to leak the story to the press. (Perhaps ASIO did not use one of their phones, but relied rather on more conventional listening devices like a microphone hidden in a light switch or a plant pot); or
  2. some other agency, not necessarily Australian, had recorded the conversation and subsequently leaked it; or that
  3. Huang, playing a devious long game, had leaked the story himself

If the story of what Sam said is true – and we have no reason to believe that it is not – is it really such a big deal? Most people who use the internet will have come across warnings that connected devices, including smart-phones, were in danger of being hacked for nefarious purposes. Sam, a noted aficionado of social media, simply made what many of us would see as an obvious point — and for this he stands accused of undermining national security. Dastyari and Huang, for all we know, may each have advised the other to get away from their phones.

The charge that Sam was actively undermining the sterling work of our security agencies is a joke — a ludicrous media/political beat-up that could easily have been exposed as such by any serious journalist who looked into the story. In practice, our mainstream media have reported the story and its alleged security aspect as established fact. Peter Dutton used it to support his charge that Dastyari was a double-agent. It is telling that Dutton's comment has been reported as putting yet more pressure on Dastyari, rather than as further evidence of the ex-policeman, Dutton's fraught relationship with the truth.

Like many Liberal MPs, Minister Dutton is independently wealthy, owning several investment properties, which may have some bearing on his Government's views concerning negative gearing. His wealth derives, not as unkind readers are likely to suspect of any wealthy ex-cop, but rather from work in his father's business followed by shrewd investments. Yet, as a wealthy parliamentarian, he has been given an easy ride by our mainstream media commentators.

However, to the extent that the charge that Sam Dastyari is a double-agent, or agent-of-influence, has been able to stick, this is only partly because the media have been soft on Dutton but also because the charge has been made by other ministers, some of whom use it as as stick with which to beat Bill Shorten. It was also, more seriously, because Dastyari was already under a cloud because of what were seen as pro-China remarks of the kind noted earlier. A little over a year ago, he had been forced to resign from the Labor front bench over reports that he had asked two Chinese-owned businesses, one of them owned by Huang, to pay bills that he did not wish to pay at the time (quite why someone on an Australian senator's salary should find himself short of the funds needed to cover two small bills is one of life's little mysteries). Also contributing to his demise were allegations that, in return, he had made comments on the South China Sea dispute that were at odds with the policies of both the Coalition Government and the Opposition. This year, with no-one needing to directly invoke the earlier "cash for comment" allegations, he is charged, once again, with speaking out against these policies.

Why does this matter? In both cases, as a member of Labor's outer ministry, Dastyari has spoken out on a policy issue that is well outside his portfolio area. This is not how members of the Labor caucus are expected to behave: they are obliged to support party policy in public and, if they don't agree, they can argue their cases privately within the Party. That Sam has broken this rule may partly explain why he has received so little support from the Parliamentary Labor Party. Moreover, the views he has publicly expressed contradict the stated policies — not only of his own Party but also of the Coalition Government. Oversimplifying slightly, we could say that Dastyari has dared to dispute the foreign policy consensus view that Australia should slavishly follow America's lead — a mindset that the current American President is making it increasingly difficult for Australians to maintain. Whether in the ALP or Australian public life more broadly, it would be hard to argue that this consensus is the hard-won product of robust political debate.

So powerful is this consensus that even the slightest disagreement can be seen as betraying our national interest and Sam's sympathy with China's view of the South China Sea dispute represented as serving China's interests — although it is hard to see that China would have much to gain from having an isolated Labor Senator, however personable, on its side.

Dastyari has disputed a comfortable and normally unchallenged consensus. This, I suspect, is the main reason why he has been so savagely attacked while no-one in the Parliamentary Labor Party dared stand up to defend him. His fate is a warning to others.

Barry Hindess is an emeritus professor at Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations. You can follow Barry on Twitter @barryhindess.

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