At risk of overcooking various hunts for Manchurian candidates among elected representatives and those seeking elective office Malcolm Turnbull would serve the country’s interests by winding back his anti-China rhetoric.

While criticism of Labor Senator Sam Dastyari over his unacceptable dealings with a Chinese billionaire donor is justified Turnbull is displaying characteristically poor political judgement by going further than he needs to.

Bashing Beijing, fueling prejudices about Chinese moles burrowing into the Australian system, even invoking one of the more sacred utterances of a Chinese leader to justify overtly anti-China rhetoric all is unnecessary.

Why Turnbull should have imagined it was a good idea last week to utter the words — in Mandarin — the Australian people would “stand up’’ (by implication against Chinese interference in our internal affairs) is a mystery.

Exhibiting more than indifferent judgement, Turnbull was parroting words used by China’s leader Mao Zedong in his speech proclaiming the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949.

Whatever might be said about Mao’s chaotic rule and its vast costs to the Chinese people in lives and livelihood misapplying one of the more sacred texts in the recent history of our largest trading partner is, well, foolish.

This reveals a persistent Turnbull problem. Even when things are going his way, he stoops to conquer, and ends up surrendering political advantage.

At the weekend, campaigning in the suburban Sydney seat of Bennelong, the Prime Minister effectively doubled down on his previous criticisms of China.

“There has been foreign interference in Australian politics plainly,’’ he said.

It’s not clear a large Chinese population in Bennelong (something like 25,000 of the 168,000 residents are of Chinese origin) will be thanking the Prime Minister for his anti-China rhetoric.

Let’s be clear, we should have no issue with the government of the day singling out Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo for inappropriate attempts to influence policy on the South China Sea and other matters, either by providing political donations, or, more to the point, threatening to withhold such donations if policy statements did not go China’s way.

Nor should we be squeamish about pointing out the extent to which China and Chinese money are seeking to bend Australia’s political process, more generally.

However, all this needs to be kept in perspective. The relationship with Beijing is not at a “tipping point’’, as John Brumby, former Victorian Labor premier and chair of the Australia China Business Council would have us believe.

On the other hand, if responsible Australian officials from the Prime Minister down persist in playing the China card for domestic political purposes then relations will be scarred momentarily. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop might point this out to Turnbull.

This brings us back to the Dastyari matter and further revelations in Fairfax papers today that he sought to pressure Tanya Plibersek not to meet a China critic while she was in Hong Kong. I know of another example of him telling one of his Labor Senate colleague to lay off China in his public criticism.

In all of this, it is hard to overstate Labor angst over the NSW Senator’s behaviour at a moment when the party believed it had Turnbull on the run.

In a commentary today in The Age/SMH I quote a senior Labor figure close to Opposition leader Shorten as saying “We have lost all momentum because of this.’’

After a year during which Shorten could leave it to a fractured conservative movement to do the heavy political lifting for him, the Dastyari matter has served as a reality check.

Apart from anything else the episode exposes a Labor structural problem. Dastyari entered parliament as a product of the NSW Right that helped delivered the Labor leadership to Shorten.

To that extent, Shorten is captive of a deeply factionalised system. If he were to force Dastyari out, he would demonstrate a willingness to buck that system. He should.

However, if Labor prevails in Bennelong against polling predictions, pressure will ease on Shorten, and conversely will spring back on to Turnbull, such is politics’ fluidity these days. 

 

 

Peter Fray

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