By Kevin Rudd
Last December, Malcolm Turnbull proclaimed that the “Australian people had stood up” — “Aodaliya renmin zhanqilaile” — against the Chinese. This was a parody of a statement attributed to Mao Zedong on the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China, after a century of foreign occupation, that “the Chinese people had stood up”.
Apart from Turnbull’s dubious comparison between China’s communist revolution in 1949 and Australia’s national circumstances in 2017, another small problem with Turnbull’s analogy is that there is no evidence that Mao said it. But then again, Malcolm has never been strong on detail. Remember the Godwin Grech affair?
One of the demands of prime ministerial office is policy consistency. But this is the same Turnbull who, when last leader of the Liberal Party, refused in 2009 to pass my legislation to ban all foreign donations to political parties. Had Turnbull done the right thing back then, much of the recent controversy on Chinese campaign donations could have been avoided.
This is the same Turnbull who as leader accused me of anti-Chinese sabre-rattling after the release of the 2009 defence white paper, which announced the doubling of the Australian submarine fleet and increasing the surface fleet by one-third to respond to China’s changing military posture. Turnbull was also a member of the cabinet that would later approve the sale of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese state-owned corporation on a 99-year lease where Andrew Robb would later become a “high-level economic consultant”.
Then there is the most infamous example of Turnbull’s political hypocrisy on China when our government refused permission for Chinese firm Huawei to participate in the rollout of the National Broadband Network on national security grounds. China did not like it. Nor did Turnbull. Indeed, when he became communications minister, he actively sought to have the government overturn our decision. It should also be noted that Alexander Downer was a paid member of the Huawei board.
Turnbull as a businessman some years back, as he has readily admitted, had mining investments in China. I assume that meant securing regulatory approval from the Chinese communist authorities to do so. Well, good luck to him. That’s what businesses do. I hope he made a profit.
So what has caused Turnbull to backflip on China? China’s strategy hasn’t changed. It has been consistent throughout. China has never pretended to share our democratic values, human rights or independent judiciary. As prime minister I challenged human rights abuses in Tibet. I also defended the legal rights of Rio Tinto employee Stern Hu when he was put on trial for corruption.
China has consistently sought to expand its foreign investment interests in Australia, as in other countries, particularly in the mining industry. Our government approved most of these. But some we didn’t, like Chinese state-owned enterprise Chinalco’s application to buy Rio Tinto, a decision for which we were regularly attacked in the Chinese media.
China also has long opposed US alliances in the region. Notwithstanding this, our government supported the US “pivot to Asia”, including the deployment of additional marines in Darwin. Yet, despite all this, our government was able to maintain a balanced relationship with China, as had previous Australian governments, recognising where our values differed while prosecuting our common interests, which are vast, and never frightened to say no.
Turnbull’s about-face on China, from apologist to McCarthyist, derives from the weakness of his domestic political position — not least because in the public’s view he stands for nothing and has now been behind in 27 consecutive opinion polls. I went below 50 per cent in one. Turnbull saw the Dastyari affair — involving appalling political and policy judgment by an opposition backbencher, but arguably no greater than Liberal Party backbenchers accepting international travel and hospitality from Huawei — as a simple political opportunity to look hairy-chested, to paint Labor as a pack of fifth columnists for the Chinese Communist Party, and through his jihad against “agents of influence” smear the 1.2 million strong Australian-Chinese community and their loyalty to Australia. I presume the next step is for us all to be hauled before a new house committee on un-Australian activities, to further perpetuate the memory of senator Joe McCarthy. Why not a new Petrov royal commission, just for good measure?
China has long sought to increase its influence in Australia and around the world. Other foreign powers do this in Australia too. The question is not one of whether China is seeking to do so here. The real question is to what extent is it increasing; to what extent is it manageable while maintaining a normal, healthy, balanced bilateral relationship still capable of advancing the vast array of common interests we share, which I believe we can; and to what extent are our existing laws, regulations and powers up to the task. These are the real public policy questions we face. They are of a more sober nature than shrill statements from Turnbull calling on the Australian masses to “rise up” against the Chinese hordes.
Turnbull’s responsibility is threefold: to substantiate, with data and evidence, not just innuendo, his charge that Australia is somehow under a new major threat from China from within; second, to establish why Australia’s existing laws are not sufficient to deal with it; third, to identify what will be the wider consequences for our civil liberties of his new proposed legislation.
ASIO and the Australian Federal Police already have extraordinary powers. Their resources have been enhanced by successive governments. The laws they enforce are robust, except for Turnbull’s gutlessness on foreign donations reform. Our media laws, competition authorities and investment regulators are there to protect the national interest and prevent the concentration of media power, including in the Australian Chinese-language press. Our vice-chancellors already have powers to uphold academic freedom on our campuses. How many attempts have been made to intimidate students and lecturers? What has been the nature of those threats? What extra powers precisely are needed? If there is a problem, then our agencies should already be taking substantive, operational action as a matter of course, rather than the Prime Minister turning it into a political sound and light show. On sensitive matters of national security, states can just do things. They don’t have to talk about it in the media. But that depends on whether you are prosecuting a serious national security concern or just rank politics.
When China soon becomes the largest economy, it will be the first time since George III this position will be held by a non-democratic, non-Western, non-English-speaking state. China has the second largest military budget in the world. It is run by a one-party state with no intention of democratising. It also has a different concept of the future of the regional and global order. Welcome to the reality that has stared Australia in the face for the past decade, back when Malcolm was China’s cheerleader-in-chief. Every other democracy is facing the same challenge. And opportunity. We’re not exactly Robinson Crusoe.
What this requires is a systematic, comprehensive, whole-of-government national China strategy. Our government approved and implemented such a strategy through cabinet. It provided a balanced framework for maximising the opportunities and managing the challenges in the China relationship. China has a strategy for dealing with us. That’s why we developed one for dealing with them. By contrast, Turnbull has lurched from one extreme to the other, from apologist to confrontationist. There is, indeed, a middle path for dealing with the Middle Kingdom. If Turnbull was actually interested, I’d happily arrange to let him read it. But then again, proper approval for the confidential release of cabinet documents seems to be optional these days in Canberra.
The Liberals historically see foreign policy as little more than the continuation of domestic politics, often the politics of race, by other means. John Howard was a master of it, Pauline Hanson his partner, and Tony Abbott his failed apprentice. We thought Turnbull would be better. Alas not. The China relationship warrants a sophisticated strategy, rather than the juvenile incantation of Chinese revolutionary slogans, whose principal objective was to trigger a sharp reaction from Beijing — all to reinforce Turnbull’s “toughness” in “standing up for Australia”, the hoariest old political chestnut of all, and in Malcolm’s imaginings lifting him in the polls. But the price we have paid has been long-term damage to Australian interests in one of our two most important strategic relationships. Australia deserves better than the rank amateurism we have seen on the Australia-China relationship under Chairman Malcolm’s new McCarthyism.
Kevin Rudd is a former foreign minister and prime minister of Australia. He also served on the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security. He has never been engaged by a foreign government or state-owned corporation.