The China intrigue

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.

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Ad astra reply

29/03/2009It seems as if ABC TV is also going ‘tabloid’. This morning on [i]Insiders[/i] well over half the programme was spent on the Fitzgibbon affair, including almost Barrie Cassidy’s entire interview with Julia Gillard. Panellist Andrew Bolt was up to his usual style, inviting anti-China sentiment in a manner reminiscent of Pauline Hanson. There was little time for discussing the crucial matters of international concern. The ever-sensible George Megalogenis tempered the discussion by reminding viewers that an association with China was to Australia’s advantage, that stirring anti-China sentiment was not wise either locally or internationally. Talking about the Coalition attack on the Rudd Government’s China connections, he added deliciously: [quote]“They can forget about winning back Bennelong.”[/quote] But on Channel Ten’s [i]Meet the Press[/i] Tony Abbott was again pushing the association between Fitzgibbon, Rudd and Helen Liu, notwithstanding the screaming headline in [i]The Sunday Telegraph, Helen Liu 'spy' storm widens[/i] http://www.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/story/0,22049,25255895-5005941,00.html with a lovely photo of John Howard and Helen Liu adorning the piece. It seems as if the Coalition in its wisdom has decided that linking Rudd and Government ministers to China will gain it some advantage in local politics, but without much thought to the longer term consequences of painting China as an adversary rather than a nation with whom Australia should have close economic and strategic ties. Barnaby Joyce, who is steadily morphing from maverick into political ratbag, was also on the same theme: [quote]"In the marriage between the Australian people and the wealth of our nation, the Labor Party is having an affair with China and trying to pass it off as they're just good friends."[/quote] This China move highlights the contemporary desperation of the Coalition for attention and its urgent need to gain some immediate political traction, but reveals starkly its pitiable judgement is picking issues to use for this purpose. That it has picked an issue that is unlikely to strike a respondent chord in swinging voters, and will likely impair its long tern relationship with China, underscores its political ineptitude

janice

30/03/2009It occurred to me some weeks back that the Coalition were gearing up for a China fear campaign so I wasn't overly surprised when the Fitzgibbon affair hit the papers. Ad astra, I find it difficult to stomach Andrew Bolt in print or in person but watching Insiders yesterday, he sounded like Truffles - he was using the same phrases Truffles is using when interviewed and I wonder who is copying who. Surely Truffles would be more discerning than to follow the likes of Bolt? The mad monk has come out of his cell to throw his knives and Jolly Joe Hockey adding what he thinks is affable and humourful comments on Sunrise. Barnaby Joyce is showing himself to be the ratbag he actually is. Where will it end? So far it seems there is support only from the redneck element.

Ebenezer

30/03/200918 months in opposition and they are still playing the Howard zenophobic game. Will they ever learn? Australia has moved past this rubbish, finally.

Ad astra reply

30/03/2009janice, Ebenezer I see today that Truffles is on the defensive over comments by Lindsay Tanner and Julia Gillard that the 'yellow peril' threat is being resurrected by the Opposition, an accusation he calls ‘contemptible’. Of course it’s not contemptible for the Opposition to imply that Rudd and several ministers are in China’s pocket. Andrew Bolt is aiding and abetting the Opposition with his blog in today’s [i]Sun Herald[/i]. He has it all documented in a piece [i]How much influence does China have on Rudd’s team?[/i] If you have the stomach to read it, here’s the link: http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/how_much_influence_does_china_have_on_rudds_team/ He has his usual team of sycophants egging him on with their blog comments. But if one can judge from talkback callers, there’s little interest in this, and those that do comment point out that Australia’s growing economic connection with China requires close liaison. On the international front Rudd is now being credited with being a China expert and a go-between China and other countries. Quite a feather in the cap of the leader of a middle-order power. Turnbull is not on a winner with this one. Today’s ACNielsen poll should cause the Coalition to pause on this issue. http://blogs.crikey.com.au/pollytics/files/2009/03/nielsenmarch09.pdf Taken from Wednesday to Friday of last week, during which the Fitzgibbon affair flared up, it shows the Government in a very strong position, Rudd’s popularity rising to near-record levels, and Turnbull’s approval/disapproval rating continuing its decline and becoming negative for the first time. But will that stop him from going full speed ahead with his attack on the Government’s China connections? Unlikely – Truffles know what he’s doing – he always does.

Ad astra reply

30/03/2009Possum Comitatus has a nice piece in today's Crikey [i]Newspoll reveals real "Yellow Peril"[/i]. The link is: http://www.crikey.com.au/Politics/20090330-Comitatus-Newspoll-reveals-real-Yellow-Peril.xml

Monica

30/03/2009There is Aristotle's idea that the Coalition are crazy for repeatedly repeating themselves and expecting a different outcome, however, I've recently begun to consider that they don't know what else to do, i.e., they are seriously politically stupid.

Sir Ian Crisp

31/03/2009In yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald (30th March), the Bird of Paradox was only too willing to guide our thoughts. She advised us to ‘tone down reactions’ (regarding young Joel and his penchant for freebies). She sensed that it was time to circle the wagons. “We now have the Opposition carrying on as if there is some huge conspiracy here, that if you have ever met a Chinese person, if you’ve ever discussed an issue in relation to China, that if you’ve ever spoken a word of Mandarin, apparently this is all some huge conspiracy against Australia’s national interests,” said Ms Gillard. She omitted to mention airfares and clothing purchased for a struggling MP trying to get by on about AUD$127,000 per year. I think the last destitute MP who had to be shielded from the sordid distress of penury was that NSW Liberal boofhead from the Cremorne area of Sydney. It all seems like a Mick Young redux. What should I do if I bump into Joel at a soup kitchen? Should I buy him a suit or buy him an airline ticket?

Ad astra reply

31/03/2009Sir Ian, this debate, which began as a media accusation that some in the Defence department were ‘spying’ on the minister, has been obscured by numerous red herrings. You have introduced another – whether poor Joel can afford a suit or an airline ticket. There is no question – he should have declared his sponsored trips, and answered honestly the media question about them when asked. He didn’t, and for that he deserves admonition. The sponsorship of trips of members in opposition is commonplace and used by both sides. Nick Xenophon’s suggestion could make that a cleaner process. The China connection is the most serious red herring, pulled out of the water by the Opposition and whirled around with great indignation. The condemnation by imputation of Helen Liu (who has protested at this unfair treatment in today’s media) as some sort of unspecified ‘spy’ is disgraceful. The media are just as complicit. Today one outlet says she has ‘strong links with the Chinese army’ an assertion supported by a pathetically flimsy case. But why worry about her feelings, after all she’s only a ‘Chinese-born business woman’, never mind an Australian citizen. As Julia suggests, it appears that being Chinese is enough to evoke suspicion. But the most serious aspect of the China red herring is that in its desperate attempt to get some traction, the Coalition is using this to create suspicion that Rudd, Swan, Burke and Fitzgibbon have been up to no good accepting sponsored trips and associating with Chinese, including high ranking officials, even the military! I would certainly hope they were so associating; what good is there going to China to meet just the man in the street? China is Australia’s third largest trading partner; I would expect our Government to pay it special attention. So many Australian jobs depend on the China connection. Yet we see the unedifying spectacle of the Coalition, in its attempt to smear Rudd and Fitzgibbon, ready to put at risk our cordial relations with China by suggesting our Government’s connections with it are sinister. Lampooning Rudd for being supportive of China assuming its place in world fora is something the Chinese will notice and remember. Turnbull wants to be PM. One would expect him to be smart enough to realize that if he ever does assume that mantle, because of his short-term opportunism he will be well behind the eight-ball in his relations with China from the outset. As Monica suggests, the Coalition appears to be 'seriously politically stupid'. Would that we could back to the central reason for this saga – what, if anything, did happen in Defence to disadvantage the minister?

Ad astra reply

31/03/2009If Turnbull and his Coalition colleagues wanted any further evidence that its current course of action is not gaining traction, they should take a look at yesterday's Essential Research Report carried out from 17 to 29 March among 1097 respondents. http://blogs.crikey.com.au/pollytics/files/2009/03/essential-report_300309.pdf During this period the Fitzgibbon affair was extant. Apart from the astronomic 2PP of 63/37, up from 60/40 last week, a seemingly impossible result, they should look at the satisfaction/dissatisfaction rating of Turnbull. In his worst result ever, satisfaction is 28% and dissatisfaction 48%, a massive decline of 26 percentage points from his September ratings of 36/30 when he assumed leadership. Two weeks before the change of Liberal leadership last year, Nelson had an approval rating of 24% approve and 51% disapprove. Draw your own conclusions. Turnbull should, and try something different since what he's doing doesn't seem to be working.

Ad astra reply

31/03/2009Please do read the delightful send-up by the editor of [i]Crikey[/i] of the article in today's [i]Australian: Helen Liu has strong links with Chinese army[/i] http://www.crikey.com.au/Crikey-Says/20090331-Crikey-says.html Rowan Callick and Brad Norington should be ashamed of such shoddy journalism.

Ad astra reply

1/04/2009Just Me, the Coalition seems hell-bent on its self-destructive course over the Fitzgibbon affair. Yesterday Malcolm Turnbull called again for Kevin Rudd to sack Joel Fitzgibbon for incompetence over the SAS bungle. [quote]"Mr Fitzgibbon has been completely unable to give parliament any explanation for the bungle despite having promised many times to fix it up. It's just one example of his incompetence and why he should no longer be Australia's defence minister."[/quote] Today [i]The Australian[/i] reports in an article [i]Defence pay audit supports Joel Fitzgibbon[/i] http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25272571-31477,00.html that independent auditor KPMG, [quote]“ordered by Fitzgibbon after he could not get a definitive answer from the Defence Department over whether the SAS soldiers had been paid, found that although three SAS soldiers received pay slips indicating zero, funds had been credited to their account, they did receive pay. KPMG also expressed confidence that no special forces soldiers would be left out of pocket. The audit vindicated fears by Fitzgibbon that the department had ignored an October 22 ministerial directive to halt debt-recovery action stemming from overpayment of allowances to special forces soldiers. The audit put the blame for the SAS pay bungle on an antiquated pay and salary system, outdated equipment and personnel poorly trained to handle its immense complexities.”[/quote] Notwithstanding this vindication of Fitzgibbon, this morning the shadow Minister for Defence David Johnston was still insisting [quote]“The totality of the Minister’s conduct in recent months shows he has no capacity to engage his Department – he simply doesn’t understand his portfolio – it’s obvious he’s out of his depth.”[/quote] http://www.liberal.org.au/news.php?Id=2855 Johnson even claimed that he could have fixed the SAS problem in four hours! It seems that no matter what the facts might be, the Coalition will continue its pursuit. Moreover, Johnson has a list of questions that he insists Rudd must answer on his return. The long list is at http://www.liberal.org.au/news.php?Id=2848. With the world in recession and forecasts getting worse by the day, with our PM playing a major role in the G20 efforts to respond to the crisis, the Opposition wants to pursue these matters, which by comparison are trivial in the extreme. It shows their desperation to score a political point or two, as at the moment they are entirely irrelevant, and they know it. On the China side, they continue with their snide campaign against a ‘Chinese-born businesswoman’ and China itself, even though it has the potential to damage Australia’s crucial relationship with that country. And look at what Barnaby Joyce has had to say – he goes in boots and all. Last night he attacked the Fortescue approval. [quote]"Let's be clear about this and not call them Hunan Valin or Minmetals or Chinalco, let's call them by what they actually are and that is the Communist People's Republic of China. It starts with a 17 per cent stake but what happens when the Communist People's Republic of China, who is lending you the money, says actually we want 51 per cent?"[/quote] With an uncontrollable colleague like Joyce, Turnbull and the Coalition are implicated in his comments by association, so that any feeble applause for China Turnbull might attempt is drowned out by Joyce’s strident tones. It is the Coalition that has dug itself into a very deep hole over the Fitzgibbon affair, much deeper than the Government’s, but it keeps on digging.

Ad astra reply

1/04/2009Do read Bernard Keane's delicious piece in today's [i]Crikey: ASIO reveals China-linked campaign to dominate Australia's media[/i] http://www.crikey.com.au/Politics/20090401-Chinese-linked-attempt-to-dominate-Australias-media.html Remember the date.

Ad astra reply

1/04/2009It must be a day for satire. Enjoy Shane Maloney's [i]Kevin Rudd in Taking Mineral Mountain by Strategy (A Beijing Opera in 8 Acts)[/i] http://www.crikey.com.au/Politics/20090401-Kevin-Rudd-in-Taking-Mineral-Mountain-by-Strategy-A-Beijing-Opera-in-8-Acts.html

Ad astra reply

1/04/2009[i]Crikey[/i] is a goldmine today. In the light of the China debate, you may be interested in Bernard Keane's [i]Coalition is leading with its ideology and getting clobbered[/i] http://www.crikey.com.au/Politics/20090401-Coalition-must-move-beyond-ideology-attack.html A most insightful piece. But will the Coalition heed? Is Turnbull able to change tack? Is the Coalition willing to let him, or are the Howard ideologues still dominant?

janice

2/04/2009The winds of change have arrived LOL. Greg Sheridan writes that Joel Fitzgibbon is not at fault, that he is not incompetent or out of his depth and that the source of Fairfax revelations need to be revealed. Suddenly the whole 'affair' is being downplayed and one wonders how Truffles is going to extricate himself out of this one. I am not able to read Crikey, Ad astra - sadly my budget precludes me from paying for the membership.

Ad astra reply

2/04/2009Thank you janice for alerting me to the Sheridan article - fascinating reading. It's the first balanced article I've read on the Fitzgibbon affair. We've already heard that preliminary internal investigations in the Defence Department have unearthed nothing, and we await the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security probe. KPMG has cleared Fitzgibbon in the SAS pay affair, and placed the blame at the department's feet. From the outset I've wondered what agenda Fairfax papers were running with this story. We still don’t know, and maybe never will. Sheridan’s article has upset a number of his bloggers who want to pillory Fitzgibbon. I expect they are getting angrier by the day as the case against him falls away. They have little left: two undisclosed sponsored trips while in opposition; today Fairfax has found another before he entered parliament; and a Boss suit that was returned. It will take a lot more huffing and puffing to blow Fitzgibbon's house down. Turnbull has plenty of huff and puff, but, as with the wolf, I doubt if that will do. All strength to Fitzgibbon’s arm as he tackles entrenched opposition from the departmental mandarins, which a succession of ministers has been unable to counter. I’ve sent you the [i]Crikey[/i] articles by email janice; I hope you enjoy them.

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20/07/2009Thank you, for this code :) Cheers!

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20/07/200910x for the code :) Cheers!
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