National Security

Deputy Labor leader's China trip slip | James Paterson on Sharri

April 24, 2022

24 APRIL 2022

SHARRI MARKSON: Now I want to bring in James Paterson. Paterson, as you know, has a history of standing up to his own government on China policy when there's an area he doesn't agree with. When Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop were going to ratify an extradition treaty with China, Paterson, who was just a backbencher at the time, risked damage to his own career by leading the way in campaigning against this, even though it caused a major political headache for the Coalition government. He also worked with Kimberley Kitching to make the Magnitsky legislation a reality. Paterson is now the Chair of the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. James Paterson, thank you very much for joining me tonight. I'm going to get into the issues about the Solomon Islands, but I just want to start with Richard Marles, the man who will become Labor's Defence Minister so media reports say, and for that reason, as Labor's deputy leader, as the man tipped to be the Defence Minister, he does deserve scrutiny in this area. Is that appropriate, do you think, to send a speech to the Chinese embassy before delivering it?

SENATOR JAMES PATERSON: Sharri, these are now very serious matters indeed, and I think Richard Marles is the embattled deputy leader of the Labor Party and aspirant to be Defence Minister if they win the election. Let's just briefly recap here. He went to China to deliver a speech in which he called for closer military relations between Australia and China, and he welcomed their role in the Pacific. Now that speech was either never uploaded to his website or, if it was uploaded to its website, it was subsequently taken down. And for nearly two and a half years until I found it and put it up on my website, the Australian people were none the wiser as to what Richard had said in that speech because it wasn't available anywhere online. We now know that for that whole time, the Chinese government had that speech. So the Chinese government had better visibility of what Richard's views were about relations between Australia and China than the people of Australia did about Richard Marles. That's a scandal in and of itself. It's an even worse scandal that we now know that he failed to declare the payments made by China Matters to finance his trip, to part finance his trip in addition to taxpayers, that he never properly disclosed that as is required to do, there is a serious lack of transparency around this speech, and it reflects very poorly on Richard Marles. And Australians are entitled to ask some very serious questions about whether or not he is qualified and fit to be the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister under an Albanese Labor government.

MARKSON: But what's your view on that specific point of providing a speech? I mean, you were not allowed into Beijing at all, you at Andrew Hastie and you have here a senior politician having the speech organised in the first place by the Chinese Embassy and secondly, providing it to them. You know, he says he didn't change anything after it was given to them, but providing it to them beforehand and given how tough China has been on your entry to Beijing, if they were really deeply unhappy with the speech, you'd assume they wouldn't have either allowed him to go to Beijing or to give the speech at all.

SENATOR PATERSON: Well, exactly right, Sharri, there's two points here. One, I would never, ever share a speech in advance of make giving it with a foreign authoritarian government, that's rule one. Number two, clearly, as you say, the Chinese government was not too troubled by what was in that speech because they allowed him to come. Only two months later, they blocked Andrew Hastie and I from attending, from visiting China because of our public comments about the Chinese government, because of our concern about the oppression of Uyghurs, because of our concern about what was happening in Hong Kong, because of their threats towards Taiwan. So they very clearly were comfortable with what he had to say and felt no need to stop him coming but willing to stop me and Andrew Hastie. And I think that reflects how soft Richard Marles has been on China. This is a long pattern of behaviour from him. In 2018, he said that we should be largely comfortable with China's increasing economic and military role in the Pacific. As you pointed out in The Australian on Friday, he repeated those observations last year and at the same time rubbished the fears raised by people like me and Andrew Hastie that China would seek to establish a military presence in the region. He said that was not real world and we should be more concerned about Millennium Development Goals. I mean, he has proven himself to be, in my view, unqualified to hold a national security portfolio. And yet that's exactly what I suspect Anthony Albanese would appoint him to if Labor Party won this election.

MARKSON: We have been speaking on this program and you've been raising the issue, as you just said, many times about concerns of China. One turning any of the Pacific islands into vassal states, but secondly establishing a military base in any of them. The Prime Minister says this is not going to happen. How can he give that assurance when clearly this is a risk?

SENATOR PATERSON: It's a very troubling development, there's no question about that, Sharri, and the concerns and fears that we've all held for some time, I think have been unfortunately borne out. The challenge that we have is not just the Pacific, but all around the world is that the Chinese government does not feel bound by the same rules that we are. They are willing to do things that as a liberal democracy governed by the rule of law, we would never be willing to do. And unfortunately, that makes them quite a formidable adversary in this context. And that's why I had the fears that I did. Prime Minister Sogavare, though, has made some very important public commitments. He said that there will be no Chinese military base on Solomons territory and that there'll be no permanent Chinese military presence there. Those are very important commitments and they're commitments he has not just made to Australia or the United States or other countries in the region, they're the commitments he's also made to the people of the Solomon Islands, who I suspect will live up to those....

MARKSON: Can we trust him, though? Why would we trust him, though?

SENATOR PATERSON: Well, I think when someone makes a commitment not just to other governments that he's relied upon in the past, including Australia, who's generously provided AFP and other assistance when there's been disturbances and disruptive activity in the Solomons, he's also made that commitment to the people of Solomon Islands and like any politician he faces elections. And you know the history of politicians who break promises to their electorates. They typically doesn't work out too well. So I expect him to live up to those commitments because he's made them not just to us, but to the people of Solomon Islands.

MARKSON: Look, Labor has been quite intensely attacking the Morrison government over this in the past week, saying this is the worst foreign policy blunder since World War Two. We had Anthony Albanese say this has been the Pacific stuff off, not the Pacific step up. This is, of course, a legitimate debate to be have, a legitimate debate to have, although I did point out in the editorial that, you know, there was no debate on this happening at any point over the past couple of years. But James, what more should Australia have done in the Solomons to prevent them signing this deal with China? Should Marise Payne have gone there instead of sending Zed Seselja, as Labor says?

SENATOR PATERSON: Well, just to come back to that point, Sharri, not only was there no debate. Richard Marles was encouraging China to take a bigger role in the Pacific and saying it was a welcome thing and that we should be happy about it. So I don't know what the Labor Party is now so suddenly upset about it, perhaps because it's in an election campaign and they're trying to derive political benefit from it. But from those of us who've been concerned about these issues for some time, the reality is I don't think it would have made any difference whichever minister we set. We could have sent Joe Biden himself, and I don't think it would have made any difference. Once that leaked draft was available we knew very clearly that the Solomon Islands government was going to go through with this and sign this because the Chinese government has significant sway with the Solomon Islands political class that unfortunately, a country governed by the rule of law and a liberal democracy can't directly compete with. What we can do and what we do do is support the Solomon Islands and the people of the Solomon Islands in every other way. They are one of their largest source destinations of foreign aid, and we are one of their largest donors of foreign aid. We're very generous in our provision ofCOVID-19 vaccines, and we've had an ongoing presence going back decades of, when required, military and police presence.

MARKSON: Yes. Do you think it has been a mistake, though, not sending Marise Payne the Foreign Minister there? And of course, you know, travel was largely shut for the past couple of years, but even, even this year, do you think it's been a mistake Marise Payne not traveling there? Particularly since, you know, there were some leaked news reports since August, or the government knew since August last year that this was a possibility this security pact.

SENATOR PATERSON: Well, they DFAT has corrected that. There was no meeting in August last year with the relevant Solomon Islands politician, and that warning was never given to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And my view is that the decision to send Zed Seselja as the Pacific Minister was the appropriate one, and it was a carefully calibrated one based on advice. We consulted very closely with our intelligence agencies and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other stakeholders within government. And it was a very deliberate strategic decision to send Zed Seselja rather than any other minister. But he wasn't the only person we sent. It has been publicly reported that the head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Paul Symon, visited and he did so with Andrew Shearer, the head of the Office of National Intelligence. So we've been sending very serious, very high level delegations for some time. We've been very concerned about this issue and take it very seriously for some time.

MARKSON: Yeah, ok. Just very, very quickly because we're almost out of time. But you and I have been speaking in recent weeks about the Independents who are running against many of the Liberal MPs. How much of a threat do you think they are turning out to be for the government's chances of winning and how concerned are you? You know, many people think that they're a safe alternative to Liberal MPs, and they don't realise they aren't aware of the strong anti-Israel sentiment and other radical policies that many people in their campaign teams have, that they hold. You know, we've seen even a lot of Hitler comparisons emerging bizarrely from some of the Independents teams, you know? Do you think they are posing a threat? And we could end up with some quite radical characters in parliament?

SENATOR PATERSON: Sharri, not only are they political threat, which is self-evident and obvious, they're a threat to the stability of the government post the election. I mean, we're in the most uncertain geopolitical environment since the 1930s. The last thing we need is a hung parliament, which is with a weak Labor government who is dependent on crossbenchers who've got no views, no experience on national security and defence. And you're right to highlight their past comments about Israel, the Jewish community and unfortunately, also the Holocaust and Nazis. Now, no less than four candidates backed by Climate 200, have been embroiled in controversies relating to Israel and Jewish community. Allegra Spender in Wentworth. Zoe Daniel in Goldstein. Monique Ryan in Kooyong. And Jo Dyer in Boothby. All of them have either themselves or had very senior members of their campaign say extreme things and offensive things about the Jewish community and Israel. I think that's a very disturbing pattern of behaviour, and I hope voters think very carefully about the risk of voting for those people.

MARKSON: Yeah. James Paterson, thank you very much for your time.


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