Money is Power: Chinese Political Donations Threaten Australian Democracy

Money is Power: Chinese Political Donations Threaten Australian Democracy
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

What you need to know

Australia’s political parties taking substantial donations from sources linked to the Chinese Communist Party raises serious concerns, Daniel Fazio writes.

On June 5, the ABC television show Four Corners shed light on substantial donations to the Liberal-National coalition (LNP) and Labor (ALP) parties from Chinese sources linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These revelations raise serious concerns that require immediate action to prevent the further corrosion of Australian politics and the undermining of Australia’s national sovereignty.

Current Australian electoral laws allow political parties to seek and accept foreign donations so there is no suggestion that the parties have done anything illegal. However, being beholden to foreign donors risks corrupting and compromising Australian national sovereignty. Indeed, Four Corners revealed this is why ASIO, Australia’s chief intelligence agency, warned senior LNP and ALP officials that China is exercising undue influence in Australian politics.

ASIO is also concerned about CCP influence in Australian universities, its monitoring of Chinese students and Chinese media in Australia to ensure they don’t engage in activities contrary to Beijing’s views.

One thing is for certain: the Chinese are not donating hefty sums of money to the LNP and ALP because they have an altruistic desire to aid Australian democracy. All great powers, indeed all nations, conduct foreign policy to pursue their national interests. Beijing is seeking to exploit Australia’s economic reliance on China because it serves its geo-strategic interests.

China’s increasing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region and growing presence in Africa indicates a calculated strategic move beyond Deng Xiaoping’s axiom: ‘hide your strength, bide your time.’ By deploying its soft power to increase its hard power, China is no longer hiding its strength or biding its time.

Should Australian political parties continue accepting Chinese donations, they risk facilitating growing Chinese influence in Australian politics which will undermine national sovereignty and potentially compromise future Australian governments into acting contrary to Australian interests.

Chinese influence in Australian politics is already evident. In 2016, it emerged ALP Senator, Sam Dastyari, had received gifts and payments for legal and travel bills from Chinese contacts. During last year’s federal election, a Chinese donor allegedly threatened to withdraw a promised A$400,000 donation to the ALP after its shadow defense minister, Stephen Conroy, expressed support for freedom of navigation laws in the South China Sea which were contrary to Beijing’s claims in the area. It has also transpired that Australia’s former trade minister, Andrew Robb, accepted an A$880,000 a year consultancy with a Chinese firm before he left parliament after having negotiated the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement.

Australia needs to immediately ban foreign donations for all political parties and mandate full disclosure of all donations from all organizations and individuals. Current Australian electoral law means donations below A$13,000 don’t have to be disclosed. Total transparency is the only way to minimize corruption and subversiveness of the political process.

The issue of the Chinese donations are symptomatic of the closed operational culture of the LNP and ALP. This lack of transparency plays into Chinese hands. Secrecy serves the designs of the political parties and those who seek to influence them.

Australian political parties are very opaque. They operate in a democracy but their internal culture and workings are not open or democratic. Within the party structures, power and decision-making is concentrated in the hands of a very small number of individuals. Dissenting views are not tolerated and it is almost impossible for those aspiring for internal party positions and a parliamentary career to make headway without currying favor with the power brokers. A political operative once told me ‘election day’ is the only day democracy operates in Australian politics.

The current state of Australian politics offers little hope for genuine and transparent reform. Voters are becoming increasingly apathetic, cynical and disillusioned. The political parties are content to perpetuate this vicious cycle because a disengaged electorate allows them to avoid proper scrutiny.

Party officials, determined to keep power concentrated in their hands, vehemently resist calls to democratise. This singular focus on the pursuit and maintenance of power leaves parties open to be compromised by vested interests. This will further corrode the political process and weaken national sovereignty.

Political parties in comparable nations such as Britain, Canada and the U.S. are much more democratic than those in Australia. The revelations about the Chinese donations are a warning to the Australian electorate to emerge from our apathetic stupor and deploy our collective power at the ballot box and demand openness and accountability from our elected representatives and their parties.

Lord Acton said, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Transparency and accountability are the only real safeguards against undue outside/foreign influence upon the political process and national sovereignty.

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis, opinion, debate, and discussion.

TNL Editor: Edward White