(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Andrew Hastie’s screed against China, which incurred the wrath of the Chinese government — a regime that has a very low wrath threshold — is, like the MP himself, a curate’s egg.

Correctly identifying Chinese aggression, willingness to interfere in other countries and desire to reshape the international order on its own terms as reasons for alarm, Hastie then promptly went completely overboard with a full Godwin Plus. China is not merely Nazi Germany ready to storm around our Maginot Line of democracy, he warns, but the Stalinist Soviet Union as well. Strange he didn’t make room for imperial Japan or Pol Pot in there as well.

Except, if China really were some unspeakable combination of Nazis and Stalinists, the required response would be clear. Hastie proposes no solutions of any kind to the dilemma of what to do when your dominant economic partner is also your worst enemy. In fact it’s not even clear what he thinks the problems in our handling of China are. “Right now our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure, but in our thinking. That intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak,” he says. Exactly what that intellectual failure precisely is, and what the institutions are that are weak, is never spelled out. As an essay, it wouldn’t have managed even a credit if undergraduate Hastie had handed it in during his Arts degree at UNSW.

(Of course, our universities are weak — because we don’t fund them. We force them to lower their standards in order to attract a lucrative stream of foreign students, including from China, and accept funding for wildly inappropriate, non-academic foreign bodies like “Confucius Institutes”, leaving them open to influence by foreign governments and providing a campus presence for pro-regime activists inimical to academic freedom. There’s a clear case of Hastie’s intellectual/institutional failure, but don’t expect either side of politics to stop worshipping at the altar of education exports).

Scott Morrison took a rather dismissive view. “Andrew, of course, is not a minister within the government and he is free to make comments he wishes to make as a member of the backbench,” the Prime Minister said, “and so he entirely entitled to provide his perspective.”

Except, Hastie isn’t just another backbencher, he’s chair of parliament’s most important committee, the intelligence and security committee, so his comments carry the kind of weight, particularly with overseas observers, that those of dopey logorrheics like Craig Kelly do not. He is in a position to apply his views to the work of a committee charged with overseeing — if only in a limited sense — security and intelligence matters.

As Crikey reported last week, the intelligence and security committee is currently in the government’s bad books, with Peter Dutton claiming that, in effect, it is a national security threat because it keeps watering down security legislation. Dutton’s claims are a direct insult to Hastie’s chairmanship and the work of its Liberal and Labor members.

Tension between Hastie and Dutton won’t have been helped by the thoroughgoing demolition of Home Affairs by the committee last Friday when the department made an ill-prepared appearance before Hastie’s committee as part of a review of the government’s original, Abbott-era foreign fighter legislation.

One of the persistent problems in the bureaucrats’ appearance was their inability or unwillingness to say that the government’s laws on revoking the citizenship of dual citizens who had engaged in terrorism had actually been effective in making Australians safer. This led to an exchange between Labor’s Mark Dreyfus — the central villain of Dutton’s smear of the committee — and Home Affairs bureaucrat Derek “citizenship is a privilege not a right” Bopping. Dreyfus asked if the section of the department’s submission to the inquiry entitled “Effectiveness of the provisions” actually said they were, you know, effective. Bopping refused to say, despite being asked no less than seven times, whether they were effective.

It wasn’t just Dreyfus, of course: pretty much everyone present got stuck into them, Labor and Liberal alike. Labor’s Mike Kelly had an extended exchange with Bopping where he tried to get the bureaucrat to consider the basic idea that an Australian terrorist prevented from returning to Australia might target Australians overseas, but such a concept seemed beyond his public service brain.

No wonder at the end of proceedings Hastie, who had kept out of the fray for the most part, made this blunt observation about the argument for the citizenship revocation provisions: “I think that’s a pretty strong case to be made. I had hoped you would have made a stronger case, in fact.”

Hastie is not a happy camper. He takes national security seriously, rather than treating it as a partisan plaything used for wedging Labor, like Dutton and Morrison do. The government may discover that Hastie being “free to make comments he wishes to make as a member of the backbench” might see more than just a spray at the butchers of Beijing — particularly if it continues to smear his committee.

What did you make of Andrew Hastie’s comments about China? Write to [email protected] and let us know.

Peter Fray

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