Sam Dast­yari: sen­a­tor recorded con­tra­dict­ing La­bor on South China Sea

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Katharine Murphy Political edi­tor

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”.

Pho­to­graph: Lukas Coch/AAP

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.

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