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Sep 6, 2016

The Guardian | World | Australia | Australian Political Donation - September 7, 2016 (03:32 BST): Dastyri's Donations Reveal a Bigger Story of Links and Largesse

theguardian.com

Dastyari's donations reveal a bigger story of links and largesse

Gabrielle Chan
 
This is a story with a long tail. As long as a dragon’s tail and with just as many scales.

It involves political donations. And it involves a number of high-profile businessmen. The fact they are Chinese has given the story extra bite. Like Chinese investment in farmland, a political donation from a Chinese Australian – citizen or resident – always attracts extra scrutiny.
The Chinese community in Australia has traditionally been sensitive about lifting their heads above the political parapet. For those who came in previous generations, they learned – often from the schoolyard – to negotiate, deflect and sometimes disappear when necessary. No publicity was good publicity.
For the newest wave, the rich listers, publicity comes with the lifestyle. They set records for house prices and political connections.
A number of Australian Chinese community leaders spoke to Guardian Australia about the Sam Dastyari row. None would speak on the record and that is because a Chinese political donation, like a Chinese farm acquisition, carries extra baggage. Fair or not, it is not treated the same as a UK foreign donation or a US foreign donation. The other reason is that the Dastyari story involves some of the highest profile people of the new wave in the Chinese community. No one wants to offend them.
It was a reminder of advice a Chinese community leader gave me as a young Australian Chinese reporter: “We must never lift our shirt and show our belly.”
This story began when Fairfax Media reported Dastyari asked for and received a payment for $1,670 from the Top Education Institute, run by the businessman Minshen Zhu. It was to cover travel costs not already covered by his entitlements. He declared the money.
His donor, Minshen, is a successful businessman of Chinese origin. He has been photographed with just about every senior politician on both sides of Australian politics. It’s his thing.
His company pictures include him with Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, the attorney general, George Brandis, the education minister, Simon Birmingham, the treasurer, Scott Morrison, the foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, the former Labor premier Bob Carr, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He clearly had some access.
Once the payment became public, Dastyari moved to pay the money back. Which led journalists to check out Dastyari’s links with the Chinese community. Which led to the Yuhu Group and its chairman, Huang Xiangmo, and his company’s payment of $40,000 to cover “legal bills” before Dastyari was a senator. What for? We don’t know. Dastyari said on Tuesday there was a confidentiality clause but he confirmed the amount was about right. None of this is against the rules.
Sam Dastyari
Fairfax Media reported Sam Dastyari asked for and received a payment for $1,670 from the Top Education Institute, run by the businessman Minshen Zhu. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP
Further down the burrow. Huang also gave him two bottles of wine when he entered parliament in 2013. Again he declared them because they were worth more than $300 (which is the declaration limit). Last weekend we found out the wine was probably worth $700 given it was Penfold’s Grange. Titillating detail but only because of Barry O’Farrell’s fall from grace over a bottle of Grange.
Which begs the question, who is Huang? He is a 47-year-old resident of Australia, who arrived in 2011 – a big guy in the Chinese community. He donates large amounts to Australian charities. Just as he rescued Dastyari over his legal bills, he was also there in 2013 to offer a job to the former Labor treasurer Eric Roozendaal when he decided to quit New South Wales politics. Roozendaal was investigated for the circumstances surrounding the provision of a car by Eddie Obeid’s son Moses in 2007. Icac commissioner David Ipp made no finding of corrupt conduct against Roozendaal.
Roozendaal went to Yuhu after he decided to leave politics in 2013 with six years to run of his parliamentary term. This allowed Ernest Wong, a prodigious Labor fundraiser, networker and former deputy mayor of Burwood, to be parachuted into his seat in the NSW upper house.
At the time, Dastyari, then the general secretary of NSW Labor, said it was a mistake not to have a voice representing the Chinese community in parliament, given the former Chinese member Henry Tsang had resigned in 2009. (I would be the last person to argue there should be even fewer Asian representatives in the parliament.)
Wong is a master of joining Chinese community and politics. His stewardship last year of the 8th World Guangdong Community Federation conference – which aims to build trade and investment – drew Dastyari, Bill Shorten, the shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen, the former Liberal immigration minister Philip Ruddock and a number of others.
Sam Dastyari
Once the payment became public, Sam Dastyari moved to pay the money back, which led journalists to check out his links with the Chinese community. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images
Huang deepened his political connections. He provided $1.8m to establish the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology, Sydney, run by the former NSW Labor premier Bob Carr in 2013. Huang also gave $3.5m to the University of Western Sydney to establish the Australia-China Institute of Arts and Culture.
Late last year, Fairfax reported that Andrew Stoner, the former deputy premier, leader of the NSW Nationals and state trade minister, had been hired by Yuhu to provide advice on the agribusiness sector. Stoner has a consultancy. Cameron Hill, former press secretary to trade minister Andrew Robb and now a media consultant, took over Yuhu’s media relations after his boss retired last year.
In his negotiations for the Chinese, South Korean and Japanese free-trade agreements, Robb built important bridges with the Chinese community, which took a long time to forgive John Howard after he suggested the pace of Asian immigration should be slowed in the late 80s. Robb reportedly has a long relationship with Huang. Last year he attended his “giving day”, a function Huang held as president of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China. On that day $743,000 was given to eight Australian charities including the Children’s Medical Research Institute at Sydney’s Westmead hospital.
Huang also looked west to spread his generosity. A week before the Dastyari story broke, Fairfax reported the West Australian Liberal branch had benefited through contacts with Julie Bishop from $500,000 worth of donations in the past two years from Chinese businessmen, including Huang.
All of the above is on the public record. And none of it is to suggest Huang Xiangmo, Minshen Zhu or any other Chinese donor has done anything wrong or illegal. Everyone seeks workers with skills and contacts, in government and outside. The other point to make is Anglo businesses also have networks and links into government that are potentially beneficial. But, without full disclosure, we will never know whether benefit is real or imagined.
Either way, the whole affair has again sparked a debate which should make everyone with an interest in politics question whether any donation is given to buy influence. In the rush to smack Labor, the Coalition has argued that the $1,670 Dastyari payment is different because it was request for a debt. If money buys influence, it buys influence.
Sam Dastyari
In the rush to smack Labor, the Coalition has argued that the $1,670 Dastyari payment is different because it was request for a debt. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP
“The Australian Chinese community is inexperienced in using political donations to satisfy political requests,” Huang wrote for the Global Times. “We need to learn … how to have a more efficient combination between political requests and political donations.”
It was an explosive entry for a man who rarely talks to the media, notwithstanding this enlightening interview with Primrose Riordan for the Australian Financial Review. He subsequently nuanced it, saying he “expected absolutely nothing in return for donations”.
Either way, elements of the older traditional Chinese community are very unhappy with these latest developments – it is changing the landscape. They are worried high-profile people are damaging their reputation and the community is fracturing: pre-Tiananmen and post-Tiananmen arrivals, Labor supporters and Liberal supporters.
“We used to argue about these things and then have a drink together,” said one Chinese community leader. “No more.”
It will change the political landscape too. And, as the public record shows, no one can say the signs were not there.