Gladys Liu during Question Time in the House of Representatives Picture: Kym Smith
Gladys Liu during Question Time in the House of Representatives Picture: Kym Smith

There is a lot to be said for the biblical injunction “by their fruits you will know them”. This is of relevance to claims that Gladys Liu, the Liberal member for the eastern Melbourne seat of Chisholm, is not a fit and proper person to sit in parliament.

The imputation made against Liu is that the Hong Kong-born Australian citizen is some kind of agent for the Chinese Communist Party. This is a highly dangerous suggestion but it is not supported by any meaningful evidence.

Put it this way: Liu has not stated any policy position on China that is inconsistent with that of the Coalition government under Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and now Scott Morrison. Moreover, few, if any, serious commentators regard Australia as beholden to China. Certainly this is not the view of the Chinese leaders in Beijing.

The Prime Minister described Liu’s interview on Sky News’ The Bolt Report on Tuesday as “clumsy”. You can say that again. But Liu did not make any significant policy errors.

The first test came when Bolt asked whether Liu agreed with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that China taking over the South China Sea was unlawful. Liu replied: “This is a matter for the Foreign Minister. I definitely put, I would put, Australia’s interests first and that is exactly what I have been doing.”

No problem here. On August 25 this year, Foreign Minister Marise Payne told ABC journalist Fran Kelly on Insiders: “There are a number of claimant states throughout the South China Sea to various aspects of the area, and we don’t take a side on any of those debates.

“But we do encourage all of those who are part of this region to operate according to international law.”

In other words, Liu was not prepared to accuse China of unlawful activity in the South China Sea. Nor has Payne.

Bolt asked Liu several times whether she considered Chinese Xi Jinping “a dictator”. She avoided a direct answer. Again, no problem. Australians who follow China know its leadership is a political dictatorship. But this does not require Australian leaders to state this fact. Democracies have to deal with many dictatorships. In Southeast Asia, Vietnam is also a communist dictatorship but it is no ally of China and shares concern about China’s role in the South China Sea.

It’s appropriate to express concern about human rights abuses where possible and appropriate. But this cannot be the sum total of a relationship between nations. Australia benefits from our exports to China. But China does not buy our goods and services because its leaders like us but because Australia sells high-quality products at market prices and has a well-regarded legal system.

Those who criticise human rights in contemporary China often overlook the fact the situation has improved dramatically in recent decades.

Mao Zedong presided over the deaths of an estimated 45 million Chinese during the forced famine between 1958 and 1962 that went under the title of the Great Leap Forward. Between 1966 and 1976, 100 million Chinese were purged and millions killed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

In recent years, Charles Sturt University academic Clive Hamilton has emerged as a fierce critic of China. Born in 1953, Hamilton graduated from the Australian National University (1975) and the University of Sydney (1979). I do not recall that he was a critic of Mao’s regime when it was at its most repressive.

Following the publication last year of his book Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, Hamilton is the go-to contact for journalists looking for a criticism of China or its activities in nations such as Australia. In recent times, the one-time Greens candidate has made several appearances on The Bolt Report. On Wednesday he told Bolt: “It is a lamentable fact about Australian politics in recent years that political leaders on both sides have tiptoed around the Chinese Communist Party, even when it engages in egregious acts.”

In fact, since the Tiananmen Square massacre three decades ago, Australian leaders have not avoided China’s human rights abuses. This is true of the three recent Coalition prime ministers along with Labor’s Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd when in office. It was former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser and Labor leader Gough Whitlam who led a condolence motion in the House of Representatives when Mao died in 1976. That would be unthinkable today.

In her interview, Liu gave inaccurate information about her associations with bodies with connections to the CCP. This could have been the result of a memory lapse or a fudge. But it was of no moment since there is no evidence that Liu has had a leading role in any of the organisations. In any event, most Chinese organisations have a connection with the CCP for the obvious reason that China is a one-party state. Liu told Bolt she had “never stepped into China” before she came to Australia.

There is reason to be concerned about China’s involvement in Australia. This is being monitored by ASIO, which advises the government. But there is no point in exaggerating the potential problem. The Chinese community in Australia is in no sense united. Some are critical of the communist leadership, others not so much.

It’s understandable why Labor and some independents want to score points in this controversy since Chisholm is a marginal seat. However, judged by her known record, Liu is the unworthy target of a politically driven pile-on.