National Security

Wolverine has earned his claws

October 9, 2021

Cameron Stewart - The Australian - Saturday 9 October 2021

Of all the voices in Canberra that have helped to drive Australia’s historic pushback against Xi Jinping’s China, James Paterson’s has been among the loudest.

The Victorian senator saw the threat a more assertive Beijing posed to Australia’s interests long before many of his fellow Liberal colleagues, forming an informal cross party grouping of China hawks known as the Wolverines back in 2017.

Now Paterson, who chairs the powerful Parliamentary Joint Committee of Intelligence and Security, has welcomed the latest tectonic shift in Australia’s relationship with China with the new AUKUS pact and the first meeting of leaders of the so-called Quad. He also sounded a warning that China’s ongoing foreign interference in Australia had become the nation’s greatest security threat, surpassing even terrorism.

“The Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping are organising the west far better than we could have ever organised ourselves because we are responding to what they are doing,” he says.

At just 33 years of age, the fast rising senator is playing an increasingly important role in shaping the government’s policy on security and terrorism and its world view on a range of issues, most notably on China and on Israel.

So who is Paterson and what sort of influence is he likely to wield as he continues to rise through Liberal ranks?

A quick glance at his CV might lead you to make a very wrong conclusion about Paterson’s background. His resume looks like a “cookie cutter” conservative political apprenticeship, working briefly as a staffer with former Liberal senator Mitch Fifield and then joining the conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs from 2011 to 2016 before becoming the youngest ever liberal senator in 2016 at the age of 28 when he replaced the retiring Michael Ronaldson.

Yet Paterson hardly had blue blood Liberal upbringing, being raised by Labor-voting, union-loving parents and being educated in public schools.

“We had really good debates around the table growing up,” he says with a grin in an interview at his South Melbourne office.

One event that helped define his world view was when, not long before the September 11 terror attacks, his mother had a brief work placement in Washington DC and the young Paterson attended an elementary (primary) school there.

After the attacks, Paterson, who was by then back in Australia, says he was dismayed by claims from the left America had brought the attacks upon itself because of its foreign policy.

“I went to a school where many parents worked in the national security establishment and probably the Pentagon and I had a very strong reaction to that cultural relativism from the left,’’ he says.

He then started reading about economics and the power of free markets and says by about 15, he knew he was a conservative and by 17 was a Liberal Party member.

But holding and voicing such positions made him “very unpopular” among teachers at his school, Melbourne’s McKinnon Secondary College.

“For example I thought George W Bush had done a good job in the war on terror around 2004 and I made the mistake of saying that once in the classroom. The teacher overheard me and at the beginning of her class she said ‘we should have a minute’s silence’ for the ‘passage’ of my soul because I supported George Bush’s re-election.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Paterson launched his career with a blistering maiden speech in parliament that attacked the national curriculum for being “unbalanced and skewed towards a left-of-centre world view”.

In that same speech, Paterson also ruffled the government’s feathers by calling for relocating Australia’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – before even the Americans had done so.

“I learned at the IPA the importance of being quite bold in your policy ambition and not shy about it,’’ he says. “That is what shakes up debate and sometimes in the Australian political spectrum I think we are quite stifled in our debate.”

Since then Paterson has pursued a determined philosophy of classical liberalism, defending free speech, press freedom, religious freedom, free market reform and opposing big government.

“James has made a valuable contribution since entering parliament five years ago,” says Treasurer and fellow Victorian liberal Josh Frydenberg. “He has the combination of a sharp intellect, strong convictions and political nouse. He is not afraid to challenge the Zeitgeist and stand up for the things he believes in. He has a big future in the party and the parliament.”

In 2017 on the issue of same sex marriage Paterson managed to anger both sides of the debate by supporting same sex marriage but also pushing for greater religious freedoms for those who opposed it.

In March of that same year, he also broke with the-then Turnbull government on China policy when the prime minister tried to ratify an extradition treaty with Beijing.

“I was immediately instinctively uncomfortable because the Chinese justice system is not a fair and free system – they boast about a 99.9 per cent conviction rate – and I didn't want to see Australian citizens be extradited to face that system,” he says.

Fellow Liberal Andrew Hastie recalls Paterson sitting in a backbenchers meeting with then foreign minister Julie Bishop who was trying to persuade them to vote for the extradition treaty.

“James just stood up and said ‘I’m not backing this and I reserve my right to cross the floor’, and then he walked out. That’s when I thought ‘OK this guy’s got some courage’. He a new junior senator and not even 30 at that point and he was willing to stare down the foreign minister on this issue. He got an angry call from Malcolm Turnbull the next morning but the vote did not go ahead. That’s where our friendship was forged.”

Others from both major parties shared Paterson’s reservations and an informal grouping arose to discuss China policy. The group, which included Paterson and Hastie and Labor’s Anthony Byrne and Senator Kimberley Kitching, called themselves the Wolverines and even had stickers of wolf claws made for themselves.

He says he has watched with “great pride” as the government has assertively pushed back against Beijing’s behaviour on cyber crime, spies, attempts to infiltrate universities and its campaign of economic coercion against Australia.

During Paterson’s relatively short political career, the tenor of the Australia-China relationship has changed as Australia pushed through foreign interference laws, the banning of Chinese telecom giant Huawei and called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

And now, with the AUKUS pact for Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines and the first face-to-face meeting of the leaders of the four member Quad – the US, Australia, Japan and India – in Washington last week, the pushback against China’s strategic ambition in the region is growing.

Paterson says “all of us would like a less troubled relationship with China” but says Beijing’s belligerence towards Australia gave the government no choice but to react.

“I think Australia is in a much better position that we were five years ago to secure our democratic system to maintain our sovereign decision making,” he says.

“AUKUS just turbocharges that with the access it is going to give us to the US industrial military technology base. It is a profound achievement.”

Paterson says Australia has successfully resisted China’s push to use trade to pressure Canberra into softening its stance towards Beijing.

“As best we can tell there were two objectives of the Chinese government’s economic coercion campaign. First and foremost was to change our public policy settings and we haven’t done that. In fact we are locked in more firmly than ever against those 14 points of grievance (outlined by China last year).

“Its other objective was to enact an economic cost to Australia as a means of sending a message to other states that you don’t want to do what Australia has done or you’ll find yourself in the same position. And on that score we have been way more resilient than we would have thought we were.”

Paterson says that apart from some industries such as wine and seafood, most sectors, including coal, beef and wheat, have managed to find other markets around the world. He says the government’s tougher approach to Beijing is winning public support. “Since 2017 (public opinion) has turned around remarkably,’ he says. “China is one of the least trusted countries in Australia … and this is a result of the behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party.”

A recent Lowy Institute poll found trust in China had fallen to new lows in Australia with more than 60 per cent of people saying they viewed the country as a security threat rather than an economic partner, and only 16 per cent saying they trusted Beijing to act responsibly in the world.

However Paterson has sounded his strongest public warning yet about the ongoing and rising threat posed by China’s interference in Australian society. “Foreign interference and espionage are now the greatest threat to our way of life, surpassing terrorism,” he says. “China is the primary although not sole source of that threat. It’s worse than it was at the height of the Cold War – and it’s a much more complex challenge because we are far more economically and culturally enmeshed with China today than we ever were with the USSR. They are willing to use the full suite of grey-zone tactics against us that fall short of war but still pose a fundamental challenge to our liberal democratic system.”

He describes recent claims by former prime minister Paul Keating that Australia is needlessly provocative to China and too close to the US as “very sad and out of touch”. “It’s been a long time since he’s had a classified briefing and I think he is wedded to the views he adopted in the 1990s,” he says.

The other country Paterson holds strong views about is Israel, of which he is a firm supporter. “Although Israel is not a perfect state it is an exceptionally demonised one and often unfairly and it is held to a standard that most other countries are not held to, particularly in UN bodies,” he says.

Since Paterson called for Australia to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Australia has gone half way, formally recognising west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but not moving its embassy there. Paterson wants the government to go further and follow the US lead of recognising all of Jerusalem and moving its embassy there from Tel Aviv.

“Every nation should be able to choose within its own borders its capital and no other nation should dictate to it. Australians would not accept other nations saying Sydney should be our capital,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Paterson also holds firm positions on Middle East terrorist groups such as Hezbollah. He has called on the government to proscribe all of Hezbollah as a terrorist entity rather than just its external arm. The PJCIS which Paterson chairs has forwarded this recommendation to the government and is awaiting an answer.

Despite his young age, Scott Morrison appointed Paterson as chair of the PJCIS in February with the backing of the outgoing chair Hastie, Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

Paterson says he has good professional working relationships with Labor members of the bipartisan committee and says it is focusing on key issues such as cyber security especially in relation to critical infrastructure such as water, oil and gas, the rise of right-wing extremism and foreign interference in higher education.

He says although the traditional threat from Islamic terrorism has not gone away, Australia faces a growing threat posed by the far right. “The fastest growing form of terrorism is this ideologically motivated terrorism which is typically white nationalist, white supremacist or neo-Nazi ideology which is not as obvious or easy to identify as the traditional Islamist threat so police and security agencies need different rules to tackle it,” he says.

On the coronavirus pandemic, Paterson was an early supporter of state premiers taking a more balanced approach to Covid-19 lockdowns by considering all factors including mental health, jobs and children’s education rather than simply following the advice of chief health officers without question.

Paterson’s call for greater balance has now become commonplace in NSW and Victoria where premiers are being forced to consider the broader costs of indefinite lockdowns on their exhausted populations.

“Governments have to be informed by health advice and take it into account but it shouldn’t be determinative on its own because it is only considering one narrow aspect of the challenge,” he says. “And it is political leaders who are publicly accountable for that – the chief health officer never faces a ballot paper and never has to justify to the public at large their decision but we do.”

“I have been concerned during the pandemic that the zero-Covid ideology has become too dominant in Australia at the expense of all the other concerns.”

Paterson has had a busy pandemic juggling his work schedule with Melbourne’s lockdowns and with a young family. He met his wife Lydia at a Liberal club function during orientation week on the campus of Melbourne University where he completed an arts-commerce degree. They have two children, William, 2, and Emily, 1.

“My wife is Catholic and my children are baptised,” he says. “But I am not religious at all. I’m agnostic, I’m not closed minded about faith, I am open to finding faith in my life, but I just haven’t found it personally.” Paterson’s irreligious approach to life is probably the only thing he has in common with his chosen nemesis, Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party.

Recent News

All Posts