Nick Xenophon
Nick Xenophon (Image: AAP/Tracey Nearmy)

Nick Xenophon and Malcolm Turnbull are used to being on the opposite sides of political arguments. They’re now accusing each other of pushing the interests of the world’s biggest superpowers. 

Former independent South Australian senator Xenophon has been representing Chinese firm Huawei since December last year through his law firm Xenophon Davis, which he runs with former SBS and ABC journalist Mark Davis.

And former PM Turnbull has recently joined the board of cyber security firm Kasada, which has been reported as having attracted venture capital from funds associated with private equity firm KKR and the US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He’s also a shareholder in the company.

This month, Turnbull joined the ranks of China hawks calling for Xenophon to register his name on the foreign interests register, saying it was “difficult to believe” that Huawei had hired Xenophon purely for his legal skills.

Turnbull told Sydney Morning Herald reporter Latika Bourke last week that Xenophon should have a “closer look” at why Huawei have hired him. 

“Given Nick’s background, it’s difficult to believe that the only reason that they’ve retained him for is his legal skills,” he said. 

“Is he also seeking to influence governments and public opinion and is he doing more than just being the lawyer giving advice on technical legal matters?” 

Huawei has been banned from helping build the 5G network in Australia, the UK and the US over fears that it is a spy tool for the Chinese government. 

The company represents the rise and fall of the West’s relationship with China. In less than a decade it’s gone from being a symbol of Chinese capitalist success to a perceived apparatus of the communist party.

Xenophon has called the firm the “most maligned company in Australian history”. 

“This is a private company that has abided by the rules in Australia and indeed in other countries,” he told Crikey

Xenophon’s law firm on the face of it doesn’t appear to be a regular law firm. First of all, Davis, although a qualified lawyer, is better known for his work as an investigative journalist at Four Corners and Dateline.

This has given fuel to Turnbull’s claim that it’s doing more than just offering legal advice, especially when the firm’s website claims to offer “strategic advice”. 

But Xenophon insists he’s not lobbying politicians on behalf of Huawei, and that the law firm is not required to be listed on the register, which Turnbull helped set up as prime minister.

“My role is to represent Huawei as a lawyer where they have been treated unfairly,” Xenophon said. “I’m not meeting with politicians. I’m advocating for Huawei publicly as a lawyer.” 

Xenophon says Turnbull’s calls “smack of hypocrisy”.

Kasada is an Australian technology company that promises to fight bots and unwanted internet traffic. Its formula has helped it expand internationally and attract funding from the US, including from In-Q-Tel (IQT), the investment fund started as part of the CIA. IQT now partners with 10 US government agencies and works in Australia with the Office of National Intelligence to support a partnership between the intelligence agencies of the US, UK and Australia.  

Xenophon says Kasada’s connection to IQT meant Turnbull had closer ties with a powerful foreign government agency than the privately-owned Huawei. 

But Turnbull told Crikey that the two were incomparable.

“Nick is receiving money from Huawei to represent them. I am an investor in an Australian company in which In-Q-Tel also has an investment. It isn’t even remotely comparable,” he said.

“There is literally no comparison or comparability between my situation and his. I’m not representing anyone for a start. “

Turnbull’s criticism of Xenophon joins a chorus of other conservative voices who have brought the western war on Huawei to Australia, including Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) veterans Tim Wilson and James Paterson, who have accused Huawei of building a spy network for the Chinese government. 

In March Liberal MP Andrew Hastie used his parliamentary privilege to call on Xenophon’s firm to join the register “so that we have full transparency about his dealings with Huawei and the Australian people”.

In December Paterson said Xenophon risked a “sad end” to his career of public service by taking on Huawei’s cause in Australia. And last week Wilson told Sky News last week Huawei presented a “greater moral evil” than pokies — a dig at Xenophon’s anti-pokies advocacy.

Xenophon could have a lot of work on his hands with Huawei, which is trying to defend its diminished reputation in the West. But he says the company’s critics are ignoring their own conflicts. 

“This is part of a campaign that is quite hysterical,” he said.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.