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Gladys Liu, race cards and foreign influence

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Member for Chisholm Gladys Liu made a clumsy appearance on Sky's 'The Bolt Report' (Screenshot via YouTube)

The race card comes in various shapes, sizes and compacted material. 

In the 2001 Australian Federal Election, the card was cut from the conflated materials of terrorism, boat arrivals and securing the country’s borders. Behind the bold slogan of sovereignty – that the Howard Government would be the one and only one to decide who would come to Australia and the precise circumstances they would do so – the dark menace boiled and bubbled.

With its permanent state of racial and cultural anxiety, Australian politics remains, at its core, white bread, insecure and deeply concerned with spoliation. Despite the dual citizenship scandals over Section 44 of the Constitution, or the permanent praises sung about multiculturalism, there is a sense of arrested development when it comes to discussing race. 

The sense of how far that arrested development is, comes through in the debates surrounding Member for Chisholm Gladys Liu.  Liu, it is fast emerging, has form. On Friday, the Herald Sun revealed that the new member had not declared in a return a $39,675 donation to the Victorian Liberal party in 2015-6. She has held honorary positions with the United Chinese Association Inc and Guangdong Overseas Exchange Association — both of which she struggled to recall. She had previously been a council member between 2003 and 2015 but has also been made honorary member despite resigning from those positions. 

Liu subsequently explained that she did not wish for her

"name to be used in any of these associations and I ask them to stop using my name.” 

On Tuesday night, Liu faced the questions of grenade-throwing provocateur, Andrew Bolt, ducking them with some clumsiness and refusing to be critical of the PRC or President Xi Jinping. On Wednesday, she issued a statement claiming that she had not been clear and “should have chosen my words better. As a new member of parliament, I will be learning from this experience.” 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been rushing to the barricades holding aloft his own version of the race card, one with sharp edges for his opponents and glossy ones for his own party. On the Chinese social media platform, WeChat, he has defended Liu, claiming his stand for “all Chinese-Australians”

With characteristically nauseating praise, he defends the member for Chisholm as one who

“has overcome many obstacles in her life and become the first Chinese woman to be elected to the House of Representatives.”   

To the Australian media, Morrison is suggesting that race colours the attacks on Liu and lurks behind the campaign by the Labor Party: "They seek to smear an Australian of Chinese heritage.” 

Being born in China did not imply disloyalty. This tactic was adopted with such enthusiasm it caught the attention of Bolt.  According to the Sky News host, in playing the race card five times in his defence of Liu:

“Well, I can only say the Chinese regime should be sending [Morrison] a thank you card.” 

The ALP, for its part, is seeking clarification on any purported connections with the Chinese Communist Party, actual, inferred or implied. A significant part of the ploy is identifying the possibility that Australia’s domestic intelligence service, ASIO, might have supplied a warning to the Liberal Party that letting Liu run for parliament would be “unwise”.

That suggestion was prompted as part of a vetting procedure implemented by the Turnbull Government in the aftermath of Sam Dastyari's resignation as Labor Senator in January 2018. The Senator had permitted the well-connected Chinese billionaire, Huang Xiangmo, to pay a legal bill for his office, in addition to warning him that he was under surveillance by U.S. agencies. He had also softened in his stance towards Beijing on the South China Sea question.

The procedure implemented by Turnbull’s office involved examining any guest list to an event, fundraiser or meeting that requested the PM’s attendance. The guest list of a meet-and-greet in the seat of Chisholm prior to Liu running for office made its way to the Prime Minister’s office, which was then passed on to ASIO. 

ASIO Director Duncan Lewis was clear in his assessment: the Prime Minister should not attend.

The comparison with the Dastyari threshold of credibility has been lightning quick, not least from the former Senator himself: 

“The Prime Minister himself set a test when it came to me. I failed that test. I rightly should have resigned from parliament and I did resign from parliament."

 

According to Dastyari, Liu was a member of an organisation for up to a decade and then "pretended and lied she wasn’t a member of them — just doesn’t pass the believability test.”

Senator Rex Patrick of the Centre Alliance made a similar point that Liu had not been open about her associations, suggesting on ABC radio:

“She’s reached the Sam Dastyari threshold where she must consider her tenure."

Morrison has also been reminded of his own attacks on Dastyari, ones that were themselves richly coloured. While Treasurer, Morrison was keen to use the term “Shanghai Sam” This had a distinct double association: an Iranian-Australian with questionable loyalties and the prospect of being a closeted Chinese emissary. (Then acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce preferred “sky-rocket Sam”.) 

During a visit to the Binna Burra Lodge to examine the extent of recent bushfire damage, Morrison feigned momentary amnesia and denied ever using such terms: 

“I didn’t use either of those phrases, so… I think people here today are focused on the fires, not Canberra.”

The problem at play here is a broader China obsession. That the PRC is attempting to secure influence in Australia on critical policy positions is a dull revelation. The screech over it is likewise unnecessary. 

And such figures as Clive Hamilton do not necessarily add balance by suggesting that Liu was

“trusted by the Communist hierarchy in Beijing to spread Beijing’s message and pursue its interests abroad.” 

But the Dastyari case has become a sword to be wielded against incautious politicians. 

The cardinal point here is that Australian politicians are there to be bought and influenced. From U.S. security interests in northern Australia to Indian mining billionaires salivating at the chance to plunder the Galilee Basin to eager Chinese businessmen keen to push a more accommodating stance. The U.S. have their place in the Australian sun; China wishes a slice of its own. The Chinese bogeyman supplies ample cover for the illusion that Canberra is independent and clear-headed, and its policies free from influence.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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