Political fund scandal sparks calls for Aussie anti-graft body

Concerns over Chinese property tycoon's donation to Labor Party

A graft inquiry in Australia has led to explosive revelations about a cash donation from a controversial Chinese tycoon to the Labor Party. The case has, in turn, prompted calls for the creation of a national anti-corruption commission.

Startling details about the donation unfolded during hearings by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, a New South Wales (NSW) agency.

The inquiry has been looking into a cash donation of A$100,000 (S$94,000) made in 2015 by Mr Huang Xiangmo, a billionaire property developer, who handed over the money in a plastic shopping bag to the headquarters of the NSW branch of the Labor Party.

Mr Huang was barred from making political donations due to a state ban on donations from property developers.

Security agencies in Australia reportedly believe Mr Huang has close links to the Chinese Communist Party, prompting the federal government to cancel his Australian residency visa earlier this year while he was out of the country. Mr Huang has denied any wrongdoing, saying his visa was cancelled due to "prejudiced and groundless" speculation.

He was one of the country's biggest political donors, giving vast sums to both Labor and the coalition government.

In 2017, Mr Huang's donations led to the resignation of a former federal Member of Parliament, Mr Sam Dastyari, who accepted them and then expressed a pro-China position on tensions in the South China Sea.

On Tuesday, former Labor MP Ernest Wong was accused of covering up the donation from Mr Huang by arranging for several "straw", or fake, donors to claim they had given A$5,000 to Labor.

Mr Wong denied the allegation. He said he had collected various donations at a Chinese Friends of Labor fundraising dinner in Sydney and that Mr Huang had then offered to deliver the money to the head of the state Labor Party.

"Did this come as somewhat of a surprise to you?" the inquiry's chief commissioner, Mr Peter Hall, asked Mr Wong. "Here was this alleged billionaire offering to do a delivery run with a bag full of cash?"

Mr Wong replied: "Not at all."

Mr Dastyari has also given evidence to the inquiry, saying he now believes Mr Huang was attempting to exercise influence on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.

 
 

"In hindsight, I now have serious questions about whether or not he was, either directly or indirectly, an agent of influence for the Chinese government," he said.

The corruption inquiry, which is due to run for four more weeks, has prompted concerns about the culture of Australia's political parties.

Labor's federal leader Anthony Albanese said the revelations were appalling and that his party's conduct had been "diabolical".

The inquiry has led to calls for the federal government to create a permanent anti-corruption commission. All Australian states have such commissions, which have proven effective and have led to the downfalls of several state Cabinet ministers and premiers.

A barrister and former counsel who is assisting the NSW commission, Mr Geoffrey Watson, said he was concerned about the recent revelations and urged the federal government to introduce a commission to apply to federal politics.

"The whole of Australia should be watching this (NSW inquiry)," Mr Watson told ABC News.

"It's talking about the influence exerted over an Australian election by the Chinese government, if it goes that high...

"If this same sort of conduct was occurring in a federal election, there is no properly equipped federal agency to look at the anti-corruption aspects."

The ruling coalition had previously agreed to set up a federal corruption agency but it was opposed by other parties as being too narrow and ineffective.

Political commentator Peter Hartcher said the revelation showed how cheaply Australian political parties could be bought.

He urged Prime Minister Scott Morrison to introduce a strong anti-corruption body, particularly as Mr Huang may not have been the only alleged Chinese agent of influence who has tried to sway Australian politics.

"Of course, (Mr Huang) and other donors might have put much more money into political parties and politicians' pockets at the federal level, just on the quiet. But we don't know," he wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald. "Because there is no federal (corruption) body."

Mr Hartcher added: "A real leader would demonstrate that Australia is not for sale."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2019, with the headline 'Political fund scandal sparks calls for Aussie anti-graft body'. Print Edition | Subscribe