Australian lawmaker quits amid questions over China ties

US Marines from Camp Pendleton, California, marching in Darwin, Australia, on Anzac Day, a day of remembrance for veterans, April 25, 2017.
US Marines from Camp Pendleton, California, marching in Darwin, Australia, on Anzac Day, a day of remembrance for veterans, April 25, 2017. David Dare Parker/The New York Times

Australian lawmaker quits amid questions over China ties

SYDNEY, Australia — A prominent Australian lawmaker at the centre of intensifying concerns about Chinese interference in Australian politics said Tuesday he would resign because his “ongoing presence” detracts from his party’s mission.

The senator, Sam Dastyari, of the opposition Labor Party, said on Tuesday he would not return to Parliament next year. His announcement follows months of intense media scrutiny in which he has fended off accusations that he pushed China’s foreign policy interests after taking money from Chinese-born political donors.

“I’ve been guided by my Labor values, which tell me that I should leave if my ongoing presence detracts from the pursuit of Labor’s mission,” Dastyari, 34, said at a morning news conference. “It is evident to me we are at that point, so I will spare the party any further distraction.”

The lawmaker had been in the Senate for four years and had been considered by some a rising star in Australian politics.

He had been under pressure to resign since allegations first emerged last year that a company owned by a Chinese billionaire paid a legal bill for his office. This year, a recording emerged in which Dastyari made comments at a Chinese media conference defending China’s aggressive military posture in the South China Sea despite his own party’s opposition to China’s actions there.

He came under fire most recently after reports emerged that he had pressured his party’s deputy leader not to meet a Chinese political activist while visiting Hong Kong in 2015.

“He’s made mistakes of judgment,” said Bill Shorten, the Labor Party leader, after Dastyari’s resignation. “But he’s paid the heaviest of prices — his career in federal politics is over.”

“It’s a tough decision — I think it’s the right decision,” Shorten said of the resignation.

On Tuesday, Shorten also became ensnared in the controversy when it was revealed that a Chinese billionaire had paid 55,000 Australian dollars, or $41,000, to have lunch with him.

Relations between Australia and China have become strained since the Australian government last week unveiled a series of proposed laws to crack down on foreign influence in Australian politics.

The new legislation, which would ban foreign political donations, among other proposals, has long been expected after a series of revelations in the Australian news media about perceived Chinese meddling in the country’s politics.

“We have recently seen disturbing reports about Chinese influence,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said last week after announcing the proposed laws.

The Chinese Embassy in Australia hit back a day later, accusing Australian officials of “making irresponsible remarks” and damaging “mutual trust.” It also accused Australian media outlets of repeatedly fabricating news stories about “the so-called Chinese influence and infiltration in Australia.”

News reports this year about the issue have prompted a growing debate in Australia over how vulnerable its democratic political system is to foreign influence from China and elsewhere.

The question of Chinese interference is a delicate one for Australia, a US ally that has embraced Beijing as its largest trade partner and welcomed Chinese investors, immigrants and students in large numbers.

“The suggestion that I or my government or Australia generally is anti-Chinese is outrageous,” Turnbull said on Monday after being accused of overreaching in his criticism of China and Chinese influence in Australia.

“This is a question about our national interest and ensuring that our leaders, our senators, our members of the House, put Australia first,” the prime minister said.

Politicians from the governing Liberal Party have been calling for Dastyari’s dismissal for weeks, with some critics of the centre-right party saying its members are exploiting the controversy to bolster their own weak hold on government.

Some say Dastyari resigned this week because his presence was damaging the Labor Party’s broader political interests.

“We’ve had about a 15-month drumbeat of attention to this issue,” said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University. “And it became very clear in the last few weeks that the political heat was only going to be taken out of the issue with Dastyari out of politics.”

Dastyari’s seat won’t be filled until next year; Shorten said it would be up to the New South Wales Labor Party to pick a successor to fill the seat.

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