Anyone watching parliamentary question time would’ve seen etched on the faces of Labor’s frontbench, including Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, dismay over the case of the disgraced Senator Sam Dastyari.
That’s the rictus smile politicians put on their faces when they know they are on a hiding to nothing on an issue over which they do not have control.
Manager of opposition business Tony Burke’s attempts to neutralise fallout from the Dastyari matter have not been very effective.
Raising questions about who might have leaked details of the errant Senator’s contacts with a Chinese billionaire is a bit like complaining about the Melbourne weather.
Not very productive.
The question is: what does Labor do about the Dastyari embarrassment and what does all this tell us about Chinese “soft power’’ efforts to bring pressures to bear on the Australian political system?
We’ll consider in more detail tomorrow the activities of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party and its tentacles that spread to countries that China seeks to influence, by one means, or another.
Labor’s problems with the Dastyari affair are not about to go away soon with risks of fresh revelations about inappropriate interactions with Chinese donors and hints from the Turnbull government it was considering launching an investigation into possible breaches of the law.
Barrister Turnbull had a field day in parliament prosecuting Labor’s discomfort over Dastyari’s interactions with a Chinese businessman, never mind that government ministers have had their hands out for donations from the same individual.
This is a political gift for a beleaguered prime ministers that keeps on giving.
It would be an understatement to say that behind the scenes anger over Dastyari’s behaviour is anything less than white hot, but Labor finds itself stuck with the former general secretary of the powerful New South Wales branch — for the time being.
Dastyari might have gone to the backbench, but like a hologram his presence in the Labor caucus can’t be expunged unless he resigns from the Senate altogether. Shorten could have him expelled from the party, but he can’t be removed from parliament unless criminal activity is alleged and proven.
Given Labor’s factional dynamics – Dastyari is a member of the Labor right, as is Shorten – it would be surprising if he was pushed out against his will.
Whether it likes it or not Labor is saddled with the opprobrium of having one of its own involved in highly questionable activities that raise all sorts of issues about foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs.
The Dastyari case — in which he has accepted money from a Chinese bagman to pay personal debts and been caught out contradicting Labor’s policy on China’s encroachments in the South China Sea – now hangs around Labor’s neck, like a smelly dead chicken.
From the party’s perspective the Dastyari affair could hardly have come at a more awkward moment for a party fighting a by-election in the Sydney suburban seat of Bennelong with the largest concentrations in the country of people of Chinese origin.
Not only is the Dastyari matter deflecting Labor’s efforts to maintain pressure on a ragged Turnbull government, it is also complicating its relationship with a large overseas Chinese community whose members will have been discomforted by unfavorable attention focused on the activities of one of their own.
Bennelong itself represents an extraordinary example of an electorate in which one ethnic group has in a few short years become a home to one such group.
According to the 2016 Census of the 168,948 people residing in Bennelong, 44,341 described themselves as being of Chinese ancestry compared with the 29,681 who described themselves as Australian.
Apart from English, Mandarin was the most spoken language in the electorate with about 14 percent of people nominating standard Chinese as their mother tongue. These are extraordinary numbers.
Given all the static around Dastyari’s significant errors of the judgement and the unwelcome attention that his China connections have brought to Labor, one person who will be fuming is the party’s candidate for Bennelong, former NSW premier Kristina Keneally.
Just when Keneally might have imagined that infighting in Coalition would be playing to her advantage, the Dastyari affair has diverted unwelcome attention back on to Labor, and more to the point the seediness of the NSW branch of which she is a prominent member.