Prominent Australian opposition lawmaker Sam Dastyari quits over claims of China links

Sam Dastyari, widely viewed as a rising star of the centre-left Labor opposition party, has been under fire since domestic media reported he had sought to encourage the party's deputy leader not to meet a Chinese pro-democracy activist.
Sam Dastyari, widely viewed as a rising star of the centre-left Labor opposition party, has been under fire since domestic media reported he had sought to encourage the party's deputy leader not to meet a Chinese pro-democracy activist. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY - A prominent Australian lawmaker resigned on Tuesday (Dec 12) in a bid to minimise the political fallout from his links to China, days after Australia introduced laws to curb foreign interference in domestic affairs.

Mr Sam Dastyari, a 34-year-old power broker in the opposition Labor party, has come under increasing pressure over his relationship with Chinese property developer and political donor Huang Xiangmo, who has links to the Chinese Communist Party and has been a big donor to Labor party.

A series of damaging revelations have emerged in the media over the past year, culminating in a report this week that Mr Dastyari had urged Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman Tanya Plibersek not to meet a pro-democracy political activist, Professor Joseph Cheng Yu Shek, during a visit to Hong Kong in 2015. Ms Plibersek ignored Mr Dastyari’s request.

Last month, an audio recording from last year emerged, in which Mr Dastyari downplayed concerns about China’s military build-up in the South China Sea, adopting a pro-China stance that contradicted the policy of Labor and that of the government.

He was addressing the Chinese community media at that time, alongside Mr Huang.

Mr Dastyari had also reportedly warned Mr Huang that his phone was being tapped by Australian intelligence officials, a claim that the politician had said was based on gossip, rather than official advice.

Announcing his resignation on Tuesday, Mr Dastyari said he was concerned that the scandal was causing damage to the party.

“Today, after much reflection, I’ve decided that the best service I can render to the federal parliamentary Labor Party is to not return to the Senate in 2018,” he told reporters.

“I’ve been guided by my Labor values, which tell me that I should leave if my ongoing presence detracts from the pursuit of Labor’s mission.”

Mr Dastyari, a member of Upper House, had previously been sacked from his Senate leadership positions because of the scandal.

But the latest revelation had led to growing calls for Labor leader Bill Shorten to sack him from Parliament.

Mr Shorten welcomed Mr Dastyari’s resignation, saying: “He’s exhibited very poor judgement and he’s now paying the heaviest of prices.”

Prof Cheng said he believed Beijing saw his stance on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong as “dangerous to the stability of the regime”.

“This kind of pressure exerting on Western politicians are not at all surprising from our point of view,” he told ABC News.

The resignation of Mr Dastyari follows the Australia government’s introduction last week of laws aimed at preventing meddling by foreign countries in domestic affairs.

The laws included a ban on foreign donations to political parties and a requirement that lobbyists acting on behalf of foreign powers register their interests.

The new laws were introduced following concerns about alleged efforts by Beijing and Communist Party-linked figures to interfere in Australian politics and universities.

But the laws – and Mr Turnbull’s expression of concern about China’s alleged meddling - were heavily criticised by Beijing.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Monday (Dec 1) that Australian personnel should “stop making comments which undermine their own image and the China- Australian relationship”, according to Fairfax Media. 

The Chinese embassy in Australia last week warned that media reports of alleged Chinese meddling reflected “anti-China hysteria and paranoia”.

But Mr Turnbull insisted he was not “anti-Chinese” and denied claims that revelations about Mr Dastyari had been leaked by Australian intelligence agencies.

“Let me say the suggestion that I or my government or Australia generally is anti-Chinese is outrageous,” Mr Turnbull told ABC Television on Monday night.

“Every country is entitled to defend its national interest… Dastyari has quite plainly been acting in the interests of another government or another power.”

Referring to his granddaughter, born to his Hong Kong daughter-in-law, Mr Turnbull said that “the proposition that someone whose granddaughter calls him ‘ye ye’ (grandfather) is anti-Chinese is absurd”.

“There are a million Australians of Chinese ancestry,” he said. “You could not imagine modern Australia… without them, and among those one million Australians with Chinese ancestry is our granddaughter.”