It is sometimes said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Some political observers might think me a bit insane then to propose, yet again, that the Senate establish a wide-ranging inquiry into Australia’s future relationship with China, explains South Australian Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick.
After all, on five previous occasions over 18 months the Coalition government and Labor opposition have combined forces to block my proposals to refer such an inquiry to the Senate foreign affairs, defence and trade committee.
Each time I’ve been concerned that various events and issues – from the Victorian government’s surprise engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, China’s growing influence in Australia’s immediate sphere of strategic interest, Chinese investments and acquisitions in key sectors of the Australian economy, to serious allegations of Chinese government interference in Australian politics – demonstrated the need for the Australian Parliament to take a deep dive into the dynamics of Australia-China relations.
It has been my strong view that only by pursuing a wide-ranging inquiry, drawing on the full range of available expertise, can we determine the best strategies for moving forward with what is an enormously important but increasingly fraught international relationship; and do so in a way most likely to enjoy broad support across the Australian political scene.
Yet on each occasion the initiative has been blocked by the Coalition and Labor. Neither has ever offered a satisfactory explanation for their obstruction, but it has always been clear they feared Beijing’s reaction. Self-censorship has been the order of the day in the Parliament when it came to relations with China.
A few Coalition and Labor backbenchers have found it in their personal political interest to agitate about China. However, both the government and opposition have repeatedly failed to explicitly call out Chinese government political interference in Australia and China’s increasing resort to strong-arm tactics internationally and in their bilateral dealings with Australia.
The contrast with some other countries has been striking. While the US, Canada, the UK and even the small Czech Republic have been open about the threats of Chinese espionage and political interference, Australian political leaders have bitten their tongues and pulled their punches.
In March this year, Canada’s National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians published a major report that called out “significant and sustained” Chinese espionage and political interference as “a significant risk to the rights and freedoms of Canadians and to the country’s sovereignty … a clear threat to the security of Canada”.
The Australian Parliament’s joint committee on intelligence and security, with only Coalition and Labor members, has never managed such an explicit statement about the extent and threat of Chinese government espionage and interference in Australia.
Of course a great deal has happened since the last time, 3 December 2019, the Coalition and Labor vetoed my attempt to establish a Senate committee inquiry.
Within a month the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan was beginning to spread across China and internationally. Since January we have not only seen the spread of a pandemic, but also a rolling global economic crisis, the result of what has been called “the Great Lockdown”, with geopolitical consequences that are still emerging and will be felt for years and decades to come.
In some ways, however, we are seeing the acceleration of trends that were already evident, and this is certainly true in Australia’s relations with China
Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye’s explicit threat this week of a Chinese boycott of Australian services and products revealed China’s true position on this relationship confirming concerns about China’s preference for control and coercion rather than partnership.
The Chinese government’s response to Australian support for a COVID-19 inquiry, amplified by the belligerent trumpeting of their state-controlled media, shows the increasingly fraught nature of Australia-China relations and makes it all the more important that Australia carefully consider our future approach to dealings with Beijing.
A substantial reset of Australia’s relations with China is unquestionably required.
Of course, had the government and opposition not repeatedly self-censored, we would already have a Senate committee working on a wide-ranging inquiry and would be able to draw on expertise within government, business, universities and non-government organisations to advise on our links with Beijing in a post-coronavirus crisis world such that we would approach the reset better informed.
So, while it might meet that definition of insanity, I will give the Coalition and Labor another opportunity to act in Australia’s national interest and vote for a broad Senate inquiry when the Parliament resumes sitting in May.
Issues that could be examined by a Senate inquiry include China’s strategic ambitions in the South China Sea, south-east Asia, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean; Australia-China trade relations including the full extent of Australian dependence on Chinese markets; Chinese investment in Australia including in resources, telecommunications and critical infrastructure; the role of the Chinese government in restricting access to its own markets to facilitate takeover bids for Australian exporters; China and Australia’s interest in international health issues including the COVID-19 pandemic; Chinese government influence on Australian university campuses, and Chinese government interference in Australian federal and state level politics.
There is, of course, nothing unusual in the Senate foreign affairs, defence and trade references committee conducting inquiries into Australia's relationship with various different countries.
The Senate committee has done this before without controversy. For example, it did an inquiry in relation to China in 2005 and 2006. It did one into Papua New Guinea in 2010, the Indian Ocean region in 2013 and Mexico in 2015.
Other parliamentary committees have also reviewed many aspects of Australia's relationship with China. In August 2012, for example, the joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade tabled a report on Australia's human rights dialogue with China.
Australia is at a strategic, diplomatic and economic turning point in our relations with China. With the government and opposition now finding it politically expedient to call for an international inquiry into China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, they should support a rigorous parliamentary examination of Australia’s relations with China.
Only then will we start to build a new national consensus on shaping and managing this important relationship in what are difficult times. Australia’s national interest demands nothing less.
Senator Rex Patrick is a Centre Alliance senator for South Australia and former Royal Australian Navy submariner.
Rex Patrick joined Centre Alliance (formerly the Nick Xenophon Team) as Nick's senior advisor at the start of 2016. He was asked to fill the casual vacancy that resulted when Nick resigned from Senate in October 2017.
Rex grew up in Whyalla before joining the Navy where he completed schooling, trained as an electronic technician and volunteered for submarine service. He served on an Oberon Class submarine before being selected and posted to Osborne as a member of the trials crew for the first Collins class submarine. He left the Navy in 1994 and worked for an Australian sonar design and development company as a trainer, then project manager, business development manager and head of research and development. In 2007 he formed his own company specialising in sonar and acoustics training and project management related consulting.