Sam Dastyari's loyalty to Australia questioned after he tipped off Chinese donor
Turnbull government ministers have questioned the loyalty of the strifeprone Labor senator Sam Dastyari to Australia after a report that he tipped off a Chinese political donor that his phone was probably being tapped by security agencies.
Fairfax Media reported on Wednesday that Dastyari had warned the Chinese Communist party-linked political donor Huang Xiangmo last year that his phone was probably tapped by government agencies, including the US government.
The warning was reportedly made face to face, with phones left outside the room.
Dastyari did not deny the conversation but he issued a statement on Wednesday morning saying he could not have passed on protected intelligence to anyone because he didn’t have access to it.
“I reject any assertion that I did anything other than put to Mr Huang gossip being spread by journalists,” Dastyari said.
“I have never been briefed by any security agency, or received any classified information about any matter, ever. I’ve never passed on any protected security information – I’ve never been in possession of any.
“And as I’ve said publicly before, I would always act in accordance with any security advice I was given.”
Dastyari said he had met Huang to tell him that it wasn’t appropriate to have future contact, and a face-toface meeting rather than a telephone call was “a matter of common courtesy”.
But the attorney general, George Brandis, said Dastyari’s position was “untenable” if Wednesday’s media report was accurate, and the foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, suggested he was acting against Australia’s national interests and national security concerns.
Brandis said the latest revelation was a significant test for the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, because this was not the first time Dastyari had courted controversy with Chinese donors.
Dastyari resigned from Labor’s frontbench 12 months ago amid questions about donations from a wealthy Chinese businessman, a controversy that triggered moves to ban foreign political donations.
“If the allegations reported in the Fairfax papers this morning are true, then serious questions arise about Senator Dastyari, about his loyalty to Australia, about the extent to which he is under the influence of foreign interests,” Brandis said.
“And one has to ask the question: why would anyone acting in good faith warn a benefactor, to have a conversation in circumstances that are only consistent with engaging in counter-surveillance activity?
“Why would an innocent person do that? What was he trying to hide?”
As Brandis foreshadowed action against Dastyari in the Senate, Labor moved early to question the source of the Fairfax story, inferring that security agencies may be involved.
“I am confused about the source of this information,” the opposition spokesman on defence, Richard Marles, told Sky News, adding there ought to be an explanation.
Asked by reporters why the government had not moved to ban foreign donations more quickly, given that controversies about foreign donors had been around for the best part of 12 months, Brandis said the government would proceed with legislation soon.
Shorten released a statement on Wednesday saying he had spoken to Dastyari and had been assured that the senator had not passed on any classified information.
But he made it clear that Dastyari had no more chances.
“I’ve made it clear publicly and privately that Labor will not accept donations from Mr Huang. Mr Turnbull has refused to do the same for the Liberal party,” Shorten said. “I receive regular confidential briefings from our security agencies.
“I don’t discuss the detail of those briefings with anyone, including Senator Dastyari, however I do not believe the senator is the subject of any national security investigation.
“I have also spoken to Senator Dastyari, who has never made a secret of the fact that this meeting took place. He has again confirmed that he did not pass on any classified information, because he didn’t have any.
“I wrote to Mr Turnbull months ago asking for the government to consider a foreign agents register and banning foreign donations. Turnbull’s monumental failure of leadership and his decision to cancel parliament this week means that these matters cannot be considered.
“I have made it clear to Senator Dastyari that that this is not the first time his judgment has been called into question, but I certainly expect it to be the last.”
The attorney general, George Brandis, and the foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, have questioned senator Sam Dastyari’s loyalty to Australia. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP