The Opposition finally got cracking on the Government’s links with Chinese communications company Beijing AustChina in Question Time yesterday, although its attack rather lacked bite.

First Communications spokesman Bruce Billson, then Shadow Foreign Minister Andrew Robb – who has substance but frankly lacks a bit of presence at the Dispatch Box – asked Kevin Rudd about his trip to Darfur in 2006, paid for by Beijing AustChina as part of a trip to the US, the UK and China.

It has since been revealed that, in addition to funding several of his overseas trips, AustChina presented Rudd with a bottle of Grange. This isn’t exactly unusual – if you want to know why the stuff is so expensive, look no further than the hordes of lobbyists and companies that shower bottles of the stuff on politicians.

Beijing AustChina has also hired PR flacks Parker & Partners to handle the issue.

Rudd’s answers yesterday – later corrected – were interesting for two reasons. He defended his use of sponsored overseas travel as a shadow Minister on the basis that no-one else was going to pay for his visits overseas. Beijing AustChina has since confirmed this, saying that it likes to provide travel support for Opposition MPs who may wish to develop an interest in China.

However, even if we accept that Opposition MPs should have their portfolio responsibilities partly funded by commercial interests, it leaves the other members of the AustChina Five in a tricky position. Wayne Swan might at a stretch be able to argue that, as shadow Treasurer, visiting the key source of Australia’s resources boom twice at the expense of AustChina was appropriate. Tony Burke insists that his AustChina-sponsored five trips to China were purely in his capacity as Labor’s Immigration spokesman. One trip to visit an important source of migrants for Australia, perhaps – but five? And as for Bernie Ripoll and Kim Wilkie – both were backbenchers.

Rudd also made a point of declaring that in Darfur he was “hosted” by World Vision. “Hosted” is a rather nebulous term and shouldn’t be confused – as perhaps Rudd would like it to be – with “paid for”. World Vision has confirmed to Crikey that its involvement with Rudd’s trip to Darfur was limited to Rudd speaking to Tim Costello before and after the trip, and meeting World Vision program officers while there.

This rather smacks of Rudd using Tim Costello as a moral shield. Indeed, the entire trip to Sudan, however well-intentioned, has the look of being tacked on to Rudd’s Women’s Weekly World Discovery Tour on the AustChina account as a justification for enjoying their largesse.

And let’s stop tiptoeing around an issue at the heart of all this. Rudd’s oft-proclaimed Sinophilia means he must have strong connections with a brutal dictatorship that, as events in Tibet are currently demonstrating, savagely suppresses dissent and imprisons and executes its opponents. China’s role in Darfur has been heavily criticised. And there are also rumours that AustChina has links with the Sudanese military — categorically denied by an AustChina spokesman this morning. AustChina has denied having any commercial role in Sudan. However, Q-Mac International, a West Australian based firm and an affiliate of AustChina, sold high-frequenecy radios to the Sudanese army in 2003, according to reports from Amnesty International.

This has a way to go yet.

Peter Fray

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