Former senator Nick Xenophon and his business partner Mark Davis have drawn heat from both sides of politics after it was announced their legal and advisory firm has brought in Huawei as a client. But the two are hardly the first agents from the worlds of politics and journalism to take a job spruiking for the Chinese technology giant.
Indeed, it has been a veritable conga line.
In 2009 Huawei Technologies employed its first non-Chinese background public relations operative Jeremy Mitchell. Mitchell had previously been editor of Telstra’s long-defunct discussion forum “Now We Are Talking” and was a staffer for Tony Abbott in the early 2000s. As he began to rise in Huawei — he is now director of corporate affairs and public relations for the region — he started to try all sorts of strategies to get the company better positioned.
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About a year in, Mitchell hired Luke Coleman, then a junior reporter and editor at long-time Australian telecommunications daily newsletter Communications Day. Like all paid PRs, Coleman fell in love with the company before turning his back on Huawei when he landing a job with Liberal MP Paul Fletcher in 2014. He eventually ended up in former communications minister Mitch Fifield’s office in 2018. It was Fifield who officially banned Huawei from involvement in Australia’s 5G networks.
In 2010 Huawei brought on one of Australia’s most expensive lobbying firms, Bespoke Approach. At the time, the firm’s principles were Ian Smith, former Jeff Kennett staffer and husband of former Democrats leader Natasha Stott-Despoja; Alexander Downer, former Liberal foreign affairs minister; and former Labor immigration minister Nick Bolkus. All three spruiked for Huawei.
The next step, in July 2011, was the creation of a “local board” of Huawei — the first such initiative worldwide — as the company tried to get into the tender process for the National Broadband Network. Downer was all too happy to step up, as were former Victorian premier John Brumby and retired admiral John Lord.
Downer left in 2014 when he was appointed high commissioner to the UK, but Brumby would stick around until February 2019 — three days after the US announced it would prosecute the Chinese company (Brumby claims the timing was unrelated). In 2014, during his Huawei stint, Brumby took up another role as national president of the Australia China Business Council, a position he held until just last month.
Only one other Australian has been brought onto the board since Downer and Brumby departed — former Aurizon (previously Queensland Rail) CEO Lance Hockridge. Two of Huawei’s main company board members, Li Jie (Jason Li) and Chen Lifang, have been on the local board since its formation.
Mitchell has former Telstra colleague Brent Hooley on his public relations staff, and this year scored something of a coup by luring former NBN spokesman Tony Brown across.
Mitchell’s latest masterstroke of employing Xenophon and Davis comes at a difficult time for Huawei, whose Australian business is showing signs of struggle: just last week the group warned that “around 1500 jobs in the local telecom construction industry” would likely be lost in the next 18 months “unless the 5G ban on Huawei”. Insiders say it may also be exiting its work in the mining sector in Australia, where it has gained some traction despite the wary eye of Australia’s security agencies and government, who have been avoiding buying Huawei tech.
So for all the efforts of the politicians, journalists, professional spin-miesters and business executives over the past decade, Huawei’s position in the Australian market — mobile handsets aside — seems to be growing steadily weaker.
For Xenophon and Davis, at least, it will be money to kick off their budding firm. But perhaps not the best branding.