Whatever it was that precipitated the linking of Joel Fitzgibbon to Helen Liu, it has created a firestorm of ‘we need to watch China’ sentiment. In just two of today's newspapers, Fairfax’s Melbourne Age, and Murdoch’s The Australian, there were about a dozen articles, editorials, cartoons, and smaller references to China and the Fitzgibbon affair. The front page of The Weekend Australian has a photo of Kevin Rudd getting into a car holding a book China’s Rise, given to him by the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington where he has just given a speech. Although the caption explained how he came to have the book in his hand, casual readers would associate Rudd and China yet again. Christian Kerr cleverly pointed out that "Yesterday our snapper in Washington got this pic of our Prime Minister carrying… China’s Rise,” with the comment "It’s maybe not the best timing to be seen with that title given the Joel Fitzgibbon row...” Of course you would know Christian. [more]
The China connection has excited the print media, which has given it greater prominence than Kevin Rudd’s US itinerary. In this time of economic crisis, balance in reporting would have required the Rudd US visit to take much higher precedence. ABC radio and TV news and SBS TV news have been better balanced.
Why has the print media behaved in this way? Was it so piqued at not being invited to the meeting of China’s propaganda chief Li Changchun with the PM in Canberra, although the Chinese media was, that it decided to hit back? Was it, as reported by Michelle Grattan in today’s Age, that Rudd has decided not to engage the travelling media about the Fitzgibbon affair the day it was reported, but when ambushed by them gave a ‘carefully prepared statement’. The media doesn’t take kindly to what it perceives as a snub, and will wreak vengeance through words, which as we all know are mightier than the sword. Lesson – don’t upset the media or it will become bolshie and will get you sooner or later.
Or does the media frenzy represent a more deep-seated apprehension – a fear of a dominant China? And if this is so, is it a fear of military or economic dominance, or concern about authoritarian communism at the ideological level?
As in any complex system, it’s likely that all of the above and probably even more factors are in play
To go back to the beginning, what was it that provoked the alleged Defence department covert sabotage as reported so triumphantly by the Fairfax press? So far initial investigations by the Defence Security Authority initiated by the secretary of the department Nick Warner have unearthed no evidence of sabotage, and ASIO has released a statement that it has no evidence that Helen Liu is a security risk, a move branded by the media as ‘extraordinary’ or ‘unusual’. Why it is considered so is not revealed. The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security is to continue the probe. In the event it unearths nothing, where will it leave the original account of sabotage, leaked to the media? If there was truly a leak, was it to cripple the minister who we know is planning major reform in a department that frustrated many a minister: Robert Hill, more recently Brendan Nelson, and now Joel Fitzgibbon. The department’s entrenched modus operandi, its fiefdoms and warlords, and its disdain for ministerial oversight, are well known. Its resistance to change is legend and its determination to do things its way common knowledge. Any resistance to the minister’s reform agenda would have been heightened when he labelled the pay section as incompetent over the SAS pay affair, which it apparently was. Call an incompetent performance correctly and watch out. Of course Malcolm Turnbull, keen to collect his first ministerial scalp, has called for Fitzgibbon’s resignation or sacking, for among other reasons, the Defence department ‘has no confidence in him’. So here’s the drift – if a department doesn’t like its minister or what he’s doing at the behest of the elected government, rat on him with covert sabotage, leak it to the press and ‘Bob’s your uncle’, dismissal will soon follow. To support such a possibility is yet another example of Turnbull’s poor political judgement as he dreams of Prime Ministership.
It will be fascinating to watch the unfolding of this saga, but if nothing untoward is found, where does it leave the Fairfax media that ‘broke the story’? More interesting than the story itself is how it got to Fairfax, and why. If Fairfax has to put up with egg on its face what will it say?
But all this may be a smokescreen for a more sinister motive, the fear of China So let’s look at ‘The China intrigue’.
Greg Sheridan leads the charge in The Weekend Australian with Beijing’s army of spies casts wide net. He begins “No nation makes a greater espionage effort directed at Australian military and commercial technology than does China. It was because of China's massively increased espionage activities in recent years that in 2004 the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation set up a new counter-espionage unit. But the problems China poses for a country such as Australia in the security and espionage field extend far beyond what might be regarded as traditional espionage.” He ends “Beijing's interest in Australia stems from two main sources: one is that it needs our mineral resources; the second is that as a close ally of the US, we have access to high-end military and especially communications technology. Australia has an absolute necessity to protect its secrets and to make sure that the influence of foreign governments is obtained legitimately and with as much public scrutiny as possible.”
Dennis Shanahan takes a more even-handed approach in his piece Labor suffers from China syndrome. He begins "The Rudd Government knows it's got a real perception problem with China, thanks to the ill-timed bumbling of and carelessness of Joel Fitzgibbon.” It's not difficult to agree that Fitzgibbon has been careless and inept over this matter. Later Shanahan says “But ill-timed bumbling doesn't mean Labor is handing over Australian sovereignty to China nor that Rudd is the Manchurian candidate with a Chinese chip in his neck and Harold Holt in the backyard of The Lodge.” He goes on to say "As a minister [Fitzgibbon] he's been in trouble for a while but his failure to declare the trips - before he was a minister - doesn't create a vast Chinese conspiracy." All this is a laudable rebuttal by Shanahan of anti-China paranoia.
Michael Sainsbury, The Australian’s China correspondent, in a piece today Friendship is a balancing act, after a bitch about the ‘secret meeting’ of Li Changchun with the PM says among other things “Australian intelligence agencies are increasingly preoccupied with China as it expands its espionage activities here. Sources say Chinese agents have focused largely on obtaining defence-related technology and know-how.” The dreaded but anonymous ‘sources’ have been at it again, scaring us all.
So what’s the media strategy here? Is it attempting to resurrect a version of ‘reds under the bed’? Is the Coalition’s grasping of this straw another reason for the media interest? Joe Hockey went in boots and all on Friday breakfast TV recounting sponsored China trips by Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan, Tony Burke and Joel Fitzgibbon, concluding ‘What’s going on here?’, the implication being that it must be sinister. Malcolm Turnbull followed suit at a doorstop the same day. After acknowledging that there are powerful arguments that China should have a say in the IMF that is commensurate to its economic status today as opposed to what the arrangements might have been decades ago, he goes on to say "But when you listen to Mr Rudd, and I’d encourage you to look at the transcript of the interview he did on Jim Lehrer’s programme in the United States; he seems to be more like a travelling advocate for China as opposed to Australia. He was given the opportunity in that interview to speak up strongly on behalf of Australia’s economy and Australia’s successful system of financial regulation and compare it favourably with the failures elsewhere in the world. He didn’t do that. He seemed to spend most of his time talking about China. Now he’s not a roving ambassador for the People’s Republic of China. He’s the Prime Minister of Australia and he has to put our national interest first." So Turnbull’s point is that if our PM promotes China, he’s not promoting Australia, as he should be. Is it possible the two are intertwined?
So the Coalition, aided and abetted by the print and online media, has embarked on a ‘we need to watch China’ campaign that threatens to extend any anti-China sentiment, and with it anti-Rudd feelings because of his close association with China. Several columnists have talked of Rudd being ‘too close to China’, a ‘Sinophile’, made all the worse by his linguistic ability in Mandarin. The possibility of being strongly on-side with one of the most powerful nations on earth, that has made us wealthy through minerals sales, that is shaping as a nation that could have a pivotal role in restoring economic sanity, doesn’t sound like a foolish or dangerous position. Moreover, with a special section of ASIO devoted to monitoring China’s activities, why the concern? All associations are risky. It is assessing the risks against the benefits and taking action to minimize the former and maximize the latter that is the sensible course of action for a middle order nation. That's what Rudd is doing. The Coalition, scratching around for some visibility, has decided to cast doubts about China’s intentions and paint Rudd in an adverse light as an agent of China’s government. A very hazardous move. Chinese have long memories. Yet another example of Turnbull's poor political judgement.