There is some irony that the demise of Sam Dastyari, the first Australian political victim of what is now is being called “sharp power” for his connections to China, occurred during the tussle for the seat of Bennelong, once the stronghold of Liberal Prime Minister John Howard.

Dastyari of course is just the latest in a conga line of Australian politicians who have happily been duchessed by wealthy Chinese businessmen, Chinese companies and the Chinese government, done deals with Chinese companies or been on boards of Australian companies that do.

After all, the coalition lost minister Stuart Robert in 2014 to the backbench after it emerged he accepted a paid trip to China. It is all part of the same piece but most of the connections and relationships are never exposed to public scrutiny. Ending foreign political donations is certainly one step but the real influence happens behind closed doors. And one thing is certain: the Chinese will not stop trying and the money will continue to flow.

Not un-prominent among those who have been recipients of Chinese largesse is Howard, who has had a long association with Chau Chak Wing one of Australia’s biggest political donors, a major owner of Chinese language media in Australia and a man currently suing Fairfax Media and the ABC. Chau has emphatically denied any connections with the ruling Communist Party or knowledge of its insidious United Front Work Department yet his newspapers tend to take a pro-Beijing line.

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Since being booted out of Bennelong by voters in the 2007 win by Kevin Rudd’s Labor, Howard has become a regular fixture on the Sino-centric speaking circuit jetting to Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere on paid speaking engagements. None of this is, nor needs to be made, public — yet Howard, like other Tory grandees, still wields huge influence in Australian politics behind the scenes. Occasionally that influence seeps out in public like his ill advised foray into the recent same sex marriage debate. Is he talking about or making recommendations to parliamentary or Liberal party members on China? We don’t know, what we do know is that Chinese interests are paying some of his bills. We are not saying there is any connection but it was interesting, at least, that Howard decided to publicly come out and say that Labor senator should resign.

Still, Howard is hardly the first Prime Minister or, in the case of the coalition, Deputy Prime Minister, to have made money out of China.

The most famous, still, is Bob Hawke who, through his company Robert J.L. Hawke and Associates, has been doing deals in China for decades since being turfed out as PM by his party in 1991. Quizzed on particulars over the years, Hawke has always demurred on giving any detail, but he continues, well into his 80s, to travel to China doing deals and greasing wheels, with his number of visits now thought to be around the 100 mark.

One of Hawke’s more public China connections was being on the founding advisory board of the Boao Conference for Asia — the self styled Chinese Davos (the annual World Economic Forum in Switzerland), which is held in March each year on the island province of Hainan. Hawke put the conference together with Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group, which has been a major sponsor since its inception. Hawke sat, for years, as a paid member of FMG’S China advisory board

None of this is illegal and Crikey is making no imputations. But it seems pretty ridiculous for the Sydney Morning Herald, in one of the year’s great beat-up headlines, to have singled out Paul Keating, who sits on the advisory board of the China Development Bank. The CDB is the main “policy” bank used by Beijing to fund investments by state owned enterprises offshore, Australia being a major target of Chinese investment. Still, unlike his peers, Keating’s office said he has no other business arrangements with anyone or any company that is China related. His business, at least, is completely transparent.

All of this is part of what Washington based think-tank National Endowment for Democracy has termed “sharp power” being used by China and Russia. While it was coined to describe what is happening in younger democracies, it looks awfully familiar here.

“Authoritarian influence efforts in young and vulnerable democracies are “sharp” in the sense that they pierce, penetrate, or perforate the information and political environments in the targeted countries” a report by the NED says.

“These regimes are not necessarily seeking to ‘win hearts and minds,’ the common frame of reference for ‘soft power’ efforts, but they are surely seeking to influence their target audiences by manipulating or distorting the information that reaches them.”

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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