Labor senator Sam Dastyari is no John Profumo yet both had their political careers thwarted due to what was perceived as the possibility of too close an association with a communist power.
The death of Christine Keeler this week at the age of 75 is a reminder of the Profumo affair that scandalised Britain more than a half-century ago. Profumo (born 1915) began a sexual relationship with Keeler, who described herself as a model, in 1961. At the time he was secretary of state for war in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government. This was during the Cold War. Profumo’s political problem was that Keeler was said to have had sex with Yevgeny Ivanov (a naval attache at the Soviet embassy in London) and was close to Stephen Ward (an osteopath who knew Ivanov).
In 1963, the married Profumo denied that there was anything improper in his relationship with Keeler. When the truth was revealed, he resigned from politics. There was no evidence that Keeler fed secrets, learned from Profumo, to Moscow via Ivanov or Ward. But, without question, Profumo’s behaviour was reckless. Profumo, a man of considerable inherited wealth, quit politics at the age of 48 and devoted the rest of his life to valuable social work. Dastyari, at 34, needs to earn a living in politics or a subsequent career. It’s just that, right now, he is de-authorised and possibly conflicted.
China remains a dictatorship governed by the political descendants of Mao Zedong, who control the Communist Party of China. China does not pose a military threat to the West the way the Soviet Union did. But it is intent on increasing its diplomatic and political influence throughout much of the world. And China has used its power to unilaterally lay claim to sections of the South China Sea. Moreover, the government in Beijing is putting increasing pressure on Chinese-born emigrants and their families — along with business people and students — to act in the interests of China rather than of their nation of their residence and even citizenship.
It is not surprising that ASIO appears to be concerned about China’s influence. After all, the security agency has a responsibility to ensure that a foreign nation does not engage in political or business espionage due to the activities of its agents or naive Australians.
There is no evidence whatsoever that Dastyari is an agent of China. For starters, he is a relatively junior politician with no direct access to intelligence material. Moreover, with a background as a full-time Labor Party operative who was appointed to the Senate in August 2013, Dastyari has no experience in business.
However, Ross Babbage, a former senior intelligence official, told The Australian Financial Review’s Aaron Patrick this week that Dastyari “may have been recruited as an agent of influence”. This means that Beijing looks to him as someone who will help to increase China’s influence in Australia. No more than that — but this is important in itself.
On Thursday, Sharri Markson reported in The Daily Telegraph that, across a three-year period, Dastyari asked no fewer than 115 China-related questions in Senate hearings, directed to senior foreign affairs and defence officials — primarily, Peter Varghese (former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and Dennis Richardson (then secretary of the Department of Defence).
The Labor senator’s interventions ran the line that Australia was too tough on China with respect to Australia’s support of the East China Sea air defence identification zone and was favouring Japan over China. These are essentially matters that pertain to policy rather than administration. But the fact Dastyari’s hostile questioning was directed at public servants, rather than ministers, made it possible for him to query his own party’s China policy without appearing to do so.
Bill Shorten’s position on China is broadly similar to that of Malcolm Turnbull. But Dastyari’s response on China’s encroachment into the South China Sea is more sympathetic to China than to the position advanced by the Coalition, Labor and even the Greens.
In a recent interview on the ABC’s News Breakfast, Melbourne-based commentator Mohammed El-leissy said that he had recently been introduced to Dastyari. Asked to comment on the occasion, El-leissy said Dastyari immediately began ingratiating himself.
El-leissy added that the Labor senator was attempting to give the impression that he was more Muslim than El-leissy. This despite the fact Dastyari is on record as saying he is not a practising believer.
Here may be the problem. It’s possible that Dastyari has been approached by Chinese business identities and diplomats in Australia and he wants to demonstrate that he is as pro-China as they are. This is consistent with the view of Australian National University international security and intelligence studies professor John Blaxland (who worked on the ASIO official history) that Dastyari may have responded favourably to influence peddling but that “there are no indications his actions involved divulging classified information or material that would be prejudicial to Australian national security”.
Dastyari’s problem is that he is now so identified with China that he has lost credibility in the debate on foreign policy and national security. Australia is an ally of the US, Britain and New Zealand, and a friend of long standing with nations such as Japan and South Korea.
Sure, Australia and China are trading partners. But China remains a communist regime that is at odds with many of its neighbours. Dastyari should have realised it makes better sense to ingratiate yourself with democracies than dictatorships.