When it comes to the influence of foreign governments on MPs and Senators, it isn’t China that we should be concerned about — it’s Taiwan.

The Taiwanese Government — with whom Australia has no formal diplomatic relationship — was the biggest single sponsor of overseas travel by Members of Parliament between 2004 and 2007, according to the Register of Pecuniary Interests, in which politicians must provide details of sponsored travel.

However, the Chinese Government is not far behind, and a program organised by the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council to influence politicians, journalists and decision makers in favour of Israel is also a major sponsor of trips to Israel.

Crikey looked at declarations by members of Parliament in the last term of the Howard Government and at declarations by senators in the current Senate, although a number of senators had listed their travel over an extended period rather than since the start of the current Senate last year. Politicians declared nearly 150 trips sponsored by companies, governments or private individuals — we excluded official business or trips sponsored by the Australian Political Exchange Council, a body established by Malcolm Fraser and supported by all parties that funds political exchanges with Government and private assistance. Taiwan, China and Israel dominate foreign travel.

China is the biggest destination for politicians by far. Between trips sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party — which has an entire division devoted to external relations — and various city and regional authorities, 23 politicians benefited directly from Chinese Government hospitality. The shadowy Australian International Trade Association sponsored a further three trips, and there were a further 17 trips to China undertaken by Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan, Tony Burke and others, all sponsored by the ALP’s Chinese business friends such as Ian Tang and Beijing Austchina.

Not that China is the preferred destination only of ALP members. Michael Johnson has his own association that channels donations into funding his travel around the world, including to China (we didn’t count those either). Coalition MPs such as David Jull, Michael Keenan, Judy Moylan, Julie Owens, Peter Slipper and Andrew Robb all visited China with support from Chinese authorities.

Showing a commendable preference for a democratic Government, however, Coalition MPs preferred Taiwan, the biggest government sponsor of MPs’ travel. The Taiwanese funded over 30 trips during the period, the majority Coalition MPs like Luke Hartsuyker, Jason Wood, Margaret May (twice) and now-vanished MPs like Kym Richardson, Gary Hardgrave, Stuart Henry, Ken Ticehurst — Taipei was evidently the preferred destination for marginal MPs facing oblivion. But Many Labor MPs seemed to make a point of going to both China and Taiwan. Dick Adams, Steve Georganas, Alan Griffin, John Murphy, Brendan O’Connor and Senator Steve Hutchins all visited both.

And then there’s Israel. The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council runs a program called Rambam, founded by Sydney businessman Brian Sherman, which is — unlike the Chinese and Taiwanese — up front about its task of generating pro-Israeli sentiment amongst journalists, politicians and key decision makers.

“By sending people to the Middle East, they can see for themselves and they are not just being influenced by the biased media or the agendas run by hard-left organisations,” said one Rambam committee member.

Politicians and journalists travelling to Israel often have accommodation or incidental costs met by the Israeli Department of Foreign Affairs. There are also other programs that organise trips to Israel, such as that run by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, which paid for a visit last year by right-wing lightweight Janet Albrechtsen and the SMH’s Paul Sheehan. AIJAC was particularly busy in 2005, sending more than a dozen MPs to get the real, non-biased story on Israel, including Bruce Baird, Michael Danby (Parliament’s greatest champion of Israel), Julia Gillard, Alan Griffin, Dennis Jensen, Kelvin Thomson, Jason Wood, Robert McClelland, and Brendan O’Connor. In recent months, AIJAC has also arranged for Senators Mark Bishop, David Johnston, Helen Polley, and Jacinta Collins to travel to Israel. Russell Trood went in 2006.

The Japanese Government also sponsored a small amount of travel and senior MPs participate in the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue, but no country comes close to Taiwan, China and Israel in terms of committing money to shaping our MPs’ view of them. Keep that in mind next time China gets singled out for its sinister influence on Australian politics.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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