Sam Dastyari: senator recorded contradicting Labor on South China Sea
The Labor senator Sam Dastyari is in fresh strife with a recording emerging of a press conference in which he contradicted Labor’s official position on the dispute in the South China Sea.
The new recording follows revelations earlier on Wednesday by Fairfax Media that Dastyari tipped off a Chinese political donor, Huang Xiangmo, that his phone was probably being tapped by security agencies.
Dastyari resigned from the Labor frontbench last year when it was revealed he had telegraphed support for China’s aggressive posture in the regional hotspot during a press conference flanked by Huang – a businessman who had, controversially, picked up one of the senator’s legal bills.
Once some of the comments were made public, Dastyari eventually conceded he had given an answer he shouldn’t have given to a foreign policy question at the press event. He later characterised his decision to take and answer the question as “naive” and “silly”.
The recording, broadcast by the Nine Network on Wednesday evening, has Dastyari saying: “The Chinese integrity of its borders is a matter for China, and the role that Australia should be playing as a friend is to know that we think several thousand years of history, thousands of years of history, when it is and isn’t our place to be involved.
“As a supporter of China and a friend of China, the Australian Labor party is playing an important role in maintaining that relationship and the best way of maintaining that relationship is knowing when it is and isn’t our place to be involved.”
The remarks from Dastyari were at odds with the official Labor policy position, which backed the Australian government’s stance supporting an international ruling against China in the permanent court of arbitration in The Hague.
Labor’s position, articulated at the time by the shadow defence minister, Stephen Conroy, was not hands off. Conroy said Labor should send a message by conducting freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea.
While the new recording essentially confirms the scope of the misjudgment that helped cost Dastyari his position on the frontbench, the Turnbull government is already on the political warpath.
Earlier on Wednesday, after the initial Fairfax report of the tip-off, the attorney general, George Brandis, inferred Dastyari was engaged in counter-surveillance activity.
“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?”
The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, echoed the attack. “Here he is, an Australian senator who has gone to a meeting with a foreign national with close links to a foreign government and advises that foreign national, Mr Huang, to put their phones inside to avoid the possibility of surveillance.
“Why is he giving countersurveillance advice to Mr Huang? Why is he trying to alert Mr Huang that perhaps Australian security agencies may have an interest in him?”
Dastyari did not deny having the conversation with Huang, in which phones were reportedly placed outside the room, but 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.”
In response to the report on Wednesday morning, the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, issued a public reprimand to Dastyari. “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”.
Shorten’s office declined to comment further on Wednesday night.
In response to the new recording, Dastyari said in a statement: “My
last contact with Mr Huang was 14 months ago. I haven’t spoken to him since”.
“In September last year I resigned from the ALP frontbench over comments I made at a 17 June press conference which were wrong and not consistent with ALP policy,” he said.
“I have acknowledged this a number of times previously. I should not have made these comments at the press conference. I have acknowledged this, and I paid a price for this error.
“I expect Turnbull and the Liberals to smear me, but for he and his colleagues to suggest that I am not a true or loyal Australian is incredibly hurtful – and hurtful to all overseas born Australians.
“I might’ve been born overseas, but I’m as Australian as he is”.
Labor senator Sam Dastyari did not deny that he tipped off a Chinese political donor, Huang Xiangmo, that his phone was probably being tapped by security agencies.