Labor senator Sam Dastyari is facing calls to resign from a Senate leadership role after a new scandal emerged only hours after Bill Shorten gave the high-profile party powerbroker his final warning.
Mr Shorten put Senator Dastyari on notice after Fairfax Media reported on Wednesday morning the Labor politician had informed billionaire benefactor Huang Xiangmo – who is reportedly linked to the Chinese Community Party – that his phone might be tapped by intelligence agencies.
Senator Dastyari, who serves as Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate, appeared to have staved off calls for his resignation, but a separate recording emerged on Wednesday night that heaped further pressure on the Labor powerbroker.
In the recording, published by various media outlets, Senator Dastyari tells a press conference called only for Chinese language media: “The Chinese integrity of its borders is a matter for China.”
Senator Dastyari quit the frontbench last year over a Chinese donations scandal – in part over those comments on the South China Sea, which were at odds with Australian government foreign policy and Labor Party policy.
Senator Dastyari had previously said he had been misquoted, then that he had misspoken, but the recording appears to suggest the comments were deliberate.
Those comments came during the 2016 election campaign – one day after Mr Huang reportedly threatened to withhold a $400,000 donation to the ALP after Labor’s then-defence spokesman Stephen Conroy lashed Beijing over the South China Sea.
The recording emerged only hours after the government described Senator Dastyari’s position as “untenable” over the earlier revelation that he warned Mr Huang that his phone might be tapped, and that he had suggested the pair leave their phones inside to avoid being heard.
After those allegations emerged, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull questioned Senator Dastyari’s allegiance to Australia.
“Whose side is he on? Is he on the side of the agencies that keep us safe, or is he on the side of a foreign government?” he said on Wednesday.
Before the recording emerged, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said of Senator Dastyari: “This is not the first time his judgement has been called into question, but I certainly expect it to be the last.”
In an earlier statement, Senator Dastyari denied he had passed on classified information, saying he had only shared journalists’ gossip with Mr Huang.
“I have never been briefed by any security agency, or received any classified information about any matter, ever,” he said.
“I’ve never passed on any protected security information – I’ve never been in possession of any. And as I’ve said publicly before, I would always act in accordance with any security advice I was given.”
The increased focus on Senator Dastyari came as Mr Turnbull was facing increasing attacks from within his own government and as momentum for a banking inquiry builds.
Nationals MP Andrew Broad lashed Mr Turnbull on Wednesday over a “complete lack of leadership” in arguing for the protection of religious freedoms, while his colleague George Christensen said a “true leader” would not have taken a “hands off” approach.
Mr Broad’s comments came only a day after LNP senator Ian Macdonald said the Prime Minister was “not seen as representing people in northern and regional Queensland”.
The Prime Minister denied tensions were boiling over as the government prepares for two upcoming byelection in New England and Bennelong.
“Australians do not expect politicians to be talking about each other in this type of area,” he said.
“They expect them to be focused on the big issues.”
In a separate development, the Greens confirmed they would back Barry O’Sullivan’s banking inquiry bill after the Nationals senator agreed to expand the commission to senior executives pay.
The Greens’ support should give the bill the votes needed to pass the House of Representatives, putting pressure on the Turnbull government to establish such an inquiry – and to fund it.