Coalition Senator Eric Abetz (Image: AAP)

Last week Liberal Senator Eric Abetz doubled down on his personal attacks against three respected Chinese Australians who appeared before a Senate committee looking into issues facing diaspora communities in October last year.

Speaking at the tabling of the committee’s report, he called them “apologists” and described their actions as “heinous”.

What had they done to earn this latest rebuke? Nothing in the opening statements of the three witnesses back in October suggested they were apologists for Beijing. No. It was their response to Abetz’s gotcha demand to “unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dictatorship” that put them in his sights.

When no witnesses took up his invitation to condemn the CCP he asked why it was proving so difficult. They responded that the difficulty lay in Abetz’s singling them out to condemn Beijing, as Chinese Australians, when others appearing before the inquiry were not asked to do the same. (I can vouch for that as I fronted the committee on the same day and was not asked to condemn anyone.)

Let’s be clear. This is not McCarthyism in the sense of making general unsupported accusations of subversion or treason. This is an avatar of Joe channelled into the Australian chamber waving a list of named traitors and apologists.

At the time McCarthy spoke, many American citizens were concerned about foreign espionage and interference (as are many Australians now), and national security and domestic law enforcement agencies across the United States were grappling with the problem.

McCarthy subverted their efforts by destroying the reputations of particular Americans under parliamentary privilege without a shred of evidence to show those he impugned were part of that foreign effort.

There’s no point pretending Abetz was speaking about some general threat to Australia or to Chinese-Australian communities. In referring to the heinous conduct of Beijing apologists he was referring to three individual witnesses whose names have been widely reported in the Australian media — Wesa Chau, Yun Jiang and Osmond Chiu — who had the audacity to appear before the committee and share their insights into the impact of fractured bilateral ties on Chinese-Australian community life.

In October, Abetz’s behaviour illustrated and confirmed the submissions made by the three on this very issue: the reputational risks to Chinese Australians wanting to take part in public policy debates in this country.

As Chau told the committee hearing: “For witnesses to publicly declare their allegiance to Australia by condemning a foreign government — this goes to the point I was making: when a person is putting their hand up for public office or speaking out publicly, they are required to make that allegiance and declare loyalty. This is unfair on the community.”

By singling out Chinese Australians unfairly in this way, Abetz achieved more than any party apparatchik in Beijing could hope to accomplish in demonstrating that Chinese Australians are not welcome to participate in public office or public debate on an equal footing with other Australians.

On Thursday, Abetz took the matter further by proudly displaying the divisions his comments stirred within a highly diverse Chinese-Australian community. He referred to letters and emails he had received in support of his stand and to media headlines and online videos welcoming his remarks.

He could equally have pointed to headlines and commentaries critical of his remarks. Abetz knows how to stoke division.

In October Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson alluded to the risk to social cohesion of this kind of conduct when she told Senate estimates that Beijing is keen to portray Australia as a country “that is intolerant, that is divided, that discriminates against various groups within our society. The reality is it’s damaging for us in China”.

Who’s doing Beijing’s bidding in Australia? It’s not the three young Australians.