Despite a less than punchy effort from Andrew Robb yesterday in Parliament and this morning on ABC Radio, Labor’s links with Beijing Austchina are starting to generate real scrutiny. Rudd and his ministers have stonewalled, refusing to release documentation about their meetings with the mysterious Ian Tang, but the drip continues – helped by AustChina co-founder Phil Smith, who overnight declared that everything was above board and no-one had anything to worry about.

So here’s where we stand:

  • Opposition shadow ministers don’t get funding to travel overseas. Consequently, it is accepted practice on both sides of politics that MPs accept sponsored travel from private interests. Such sponsorship must be declared on the Register of Pecuniary Interests.
  • Throughout the previous Parliament, Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan, Tony Burke, Stephen Smith and backbenchers Bernie Ripoll and Kim Wilkie all accepted travel to or within China sponsored by Chinese company Beijing AustChina. Rudd also travelled to the US, UK and Sudan at AustChina’s expense.
  • As revealed today, Rudd spoke at the launch in 2006 of a Beijing retail development funded by gambling tycoon Stanley Ho and AustChina founder, Beijing-based Ian Tang.
  • Beijing AustChina is a significant donor to the ALP, as well as to the National Party. Phil Smith has stated that making large contributions to political parties is standard practice for Chinese companies.
  • Ian Tang has met with Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan and Tony Burke since the election.
  • AustChina initially claimed that its representatives accompanied Rudd to Sudan in 2006 to pursue business deals in Sudan, but now claims to have been “misquoted”.
  • Beijing AustChina has claimed commercial links with a number of organisations with which it has no relationship.

Rudd and his Ministers repeatedly said in Question Time yesterday that if the Opposition has any specific allegations to make about Beijing AustChina’s links with the Government, then it should make them.

Well, how about this:

  • Rudd, Swan, Smith and Burke, as well as backbenchers Bernie Ripoll and Kim Wilkie, allowed themselves in Opposition to become closely involved with a company whose links and business ethics are under serious question. They permitted their desire to cultivate Chinese connections, and the potentially lucrative source of political donations that Chinese firms offer, to override their good judgement about becoming involved with a mysterious firm that appears to lie about what it does. As a consequence, company founder Ian Tang now has entree into the highest levels of the Australian Government.

Is this impropriety? No. But the Opposition is correct in saying it reflects poor judgement. But worse, it is poor judgement driven by the desire for political donations. Money appears to make even otherwise sensible politicians behave very strangely.

Andrew Robb, however, has backed off suggestions that all private sponsorship of MPs’ travel be banned. Only good judgement and common sense are necessary, he says.

Being now the ones in Opposition, that’s probably predictable. But it’s also likely that he is aware that the Coalition isn’t exactly clean on this issue. For example, Crikey favourite, Member for Ryan Michael Johnson has funded his overseas travel from a “Development Association” he himself established .

The only way to ensure that the Ian Tangs of the world do not end up wandering the corridors of power is to ban private funding of MPs’ travel. If there is case for some shadow Ministers to travel overseas, then let it be taxpayer funded. It wouldn’t amount to more than $1-2m tops per annum.

Rudd at least has said he’s willing to consider this, and this morning Andrew Robb agreed. Needless to say, it will be portrayed as greedy politicians helping themselves to overseas junkets. But between that and a ban on foreign donations – including donations from local subsidiaries of foreign companies – this sort of issue could be entirely avoided.

Peter Fray

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