Australia worries over foreign clout in politics

Tourists walking down the front stairs of the Sydney Opera House on June 7, 2016.
Tourists walking down the front stairs of the Sydney Opera House on June 7, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

Millions given by Chinese firms as political donations raise questions about motives

Chinese tycoons and businesses have been named as among the biggest foreign donors to Australia's political parties, prompting fresh calls to ban political donations from abroad.

As the debate continues over Australia's decision to reject a power grid lease to Chinese and Hong Kong bidders, analysis  by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation revealed that Chinese entities have been making big donations to the three major parties - the Liberals, Labor and Nationals. 

Between 2013 and 2015, Chinese donors gave A$5.5 million (S$5.7 million) to federal and state branches of the parties, according to the analysis of electoral records. 

The biggest donors included Guangzhou-based property developer Zhou Zerong, known in Australia as Dr Chau Chak Wing. Forbes magazine's rich list last year estimated his wealth to be US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion). He donated about A$1.35 million to Australian parties.

The Yuhu Group, a property development and agricultural investment firm chaired by Mr Huang Xiangmo, a billionaire known in Australia as Mr Huang Changran, was also a big donor. The firm and its employees donated more than A$1 million.

The figures led to calls for curbs on donations from foreigners and warnings that they are affecting decision-making. 

"I certainly think we should be having a stronger debate about the role of political donations and how that is potentially leading to political decision-making being skewed in favour of foreign countries," Labor MP Wayne Swan told ABC News. "I'm all in favour of looking at tighter control in that area."

Similar concerns about foreign influence have emerged recently in the United States, where Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has come under attack over foreign donations made to her family's Clinton Foundation, a non-profit organisation. Mrs Clinton's office has said the foundation will not accept foreign donations if she wins the November election.

Most countries around the world, including the United States, have bans on donations from foreigners.

Analysts in Australia have long called for changes to the electoral laws, including introducing caps and ending the long delay between elections and publication of donations. The state of New South Wales has introduced caps on donations and a ban on donations from property developers, gaming, tobacco and alcohol entities following a series of corruption scandals.

An expert on Australian electoral law, Professor Graeme Orr, from the University of Queensland, said he supported a cap on donation amounts rather than specifically banning foreign donations. He said it was fair to raise questions about the motivations of foreign donors, though such concerns should not be limited to Chinese entities only.

"Political equality suggests any corporate donations should be questioned - doubly so if they come from a source that has no common ideology or friendship (with politicians) in Australia," he told The Straits Times. 

"The issue is about big money - and China is where the biggest money in the world probably is."

Many of the recent Chinese political donors are not well-known but have extensive business interests in Australia. One of the biggest donations to a political party in recent years was made by a China-based donor, Mr Zi Chun Wang. He gave A$850,000 to Labor in 2013. Mr Zi is reportedly an employee of a property firm, Ever Bright Group, which has built large residential developments in Melbourne. The firm separately donated A$200,000 to the Liberal party in 2014.

The donors say their contributions are all above-board, fully declared and legal. A Yuhu Group spokesman told The Straits Times that the company sought "absolutely nothing in return for its political donations". The spokesman said the firm had made much larger donations to charities than to political parties.

"They (the political donations) simply reflect an interest in Australia's healthy and robust political environment," the spokesman said.

The concerns about the Chinese donations follow a recent decision by the federal government to block a A$10 billion deal to lease a controlling stake in the New South Wales electricity provider, Ausgrid, to foreign bidders over "national security concerns". The two main bidders were China's state-owned State Grid Corp and Hong Kong-listed Cheung Kong Infrastructure.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2016, with the headline 'Australia worries over foreign clout in politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe