China-born billionaire denies Australian election interference

Property developer Chau Chak Wing has been accused multiple times by parliamentarians and local media of covertly working for China's ruling Communist Party. PHOTO: CHAU CHAK WING FOUNDATION

SYDNEY (AFP) - A Chinese-Australian billionaire on Tuesday (Feb 15) denied being the unidentified "puppeteer" accused by Australia's top spy of trying to buy off election candidates on behalf of a foreign power.

Property developer Chau Chak Wing said allegations that he was the unnamed person that funnelled hundreds of thousands of dollars to potential candidates to try to influence an election were "baseless and reckless".

Mike Burgess, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, recently set off a firestorm of speculation when he sketched the rough outlines of a foreign interference plot led by one shadowy individual.

"I'll call this person 'the puppeteer'," he said during an annual threat assessment speech, without offering a name or saying which election was being influenced.

Opposition senator Kimberley Kitching on Monday used parliamentary privilege to declare the "puppeteer" was Chau - who has repeatedly and successfully used Australia's harsh defamation laws to sue local media over similar claims.

"I am a businessman and philanthropist. I have never had any involvement or interest in interfering with the democratic election process in Australia," Chau said in a statement issued through his lawyers.

Chau has been accused multiple times by parliamentarians and local media of covertly working for China's ruling Communist Party, a charge he has repeatedly denied.

One case related to former UN president of the General Assembly, John Ashe, who was accused of accepting bribes from Chinese businesspeople seeking to influence the world body.

"It is always unfortunate when elected representatives use the shield of parliamentary privilege as a platform to vilify and attack Australian citizens without producing a shred of evidence," Chau said.

Chau invited Kitching to provide evidence and repeat the claims "outside the parliament" where she would not be protected from defamation claims.

Australia's moves to deter foreign interference, with a raft of tough new laws, and more vocal public pronouncements by spy agencies have angered Beijing and fuelled a breakdown in relations between the two countries.

The issue of foreign interference has become a hot-button issue ahead of Australia's elections expected in May.

The conservative government has been accused of weaponising intelligence by leaking allegations that prospective Labour opposition candidates were targeted by the "puppeteer".

Prime Minister Scott Morrison - whose party trails heavily in the polls - has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that Labour leader Anthony Albanese is Beijing's preferred choice in the election.

"They want to appease when it comes to China," Morrison has claimed. "When it just comes to these issues and keeping Australians safe, they're just soft."

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