News National Sam Dastyari is no longer a distraction but a wrecking ball

Sam Dastyari is no longer a distraction but a wrecking ball

Sam Dastyari
Labor's Sam Dastyari has quit Parliament. Photo: AAP
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Labor’s besieged senator Sam Dastyari has his colleagues hoping and even praying that he does the right thing for the team and quits Parliament.

The diminutive politician has become a huge political problem for his leader Bill Shorten and for the Labor Party.

While the government’s overblown rhetoric is in grave danger of harming Australia’s economic interests with a super-sensitive Beijing, clearly Malcolm Turnbull and his senior ministers think the risk is worth it for their domestic political advantage.

Senator Dastyari’s problem is, once the tumbril starts rolling the cemetery is the only destination on offer.

One senior Liberal Party source says there is more to come on how assiduous the senator has been in seeking to protect the interests of his and the Labor Party’s Chinese business donors.

Some suspect the latest report may have come from inside the Labor Party, while others point the finger at Liberal renegade Cory Bernardi.

Senator Bernardi earlier told the Senate – without naming Senator Dastyari – that he tried to warn Tanya Plibersek when she was the shadow foreign minister not to meet a Chinese dissident in Hong Kong.

A statement from Ms Plibersek’s office doesn’t exactly deny the story but says the meeting was held, enough for Senator Dastyari’s office to deny the report as complete rubbish.

But a pattern of behaviour is, bit by bit, emerging.

The government’s soon-to-be sworn-in supreme security tsar Peter Dutton has taken to repeating that the senator is a “double agent and he can’t be in the Australian Senate”.

That was dismissed by Labor’s Tony Burke as the “most pathetic overreach imaginable”.

It certainly is. Surely if it had any weight at all, any evidence of espionage, Senator Dastyari would be under arrest.

But this is about brutal, desperate politics. Senator Dastyari is painted as the unpatriotic villain in repeated media reports while the Liberals’ own fundraising dealings with the Chinese are all but ignored.

The Liberal Party-linked 500 Club in Western Australia has invited Chinese government officials to be the star turn at a private fundraiser. They are from the Communist party-run government whose influence Mr Turnbull is now so worried about.

That story is a one-day wonder. But the Dastyari story will keep rolling on. He’s already been referred to the Senate privileges committee for no other reason to help make sure of that.

Two Labor frontbenchers, Linda Burney and Catherine King, say the senator should reflect on his position.

Ms Burney goes further. She says Sam Dastyari “is thinking very deeply about his role within the party”.

Labor’s candidate in Bennelong, Kristina Keneally, says Chinese voters tell her they are alarmed by the Prime Minister’s rhetoric which they see as scaremongering and reflects badly on them. How badly, we will see on Saturday.

Another former Labor premier, Bob Carr, who is now running the Australia-China Relations Institute at Sydney’s University of Technology, sees Senator Dastyari as a pawn in a bigger game, namely the competition for influence in the Asia-Pacific between Donald Trump’s America and Xi Jinping’s China.

The Institute has documented a much harder line taken by the Turnbull government against China this year. This worries the chief executive at the Business Council.

Jennifer Westacott told The Australian it was critical for business “to know that Australia’s foreign policy will not change on a whim based on domestic political expediency”.

One thing is certain: America won’t mind a bit if China-phobia becomes more entrenched here.

One senior former diplomat says Washington has been concerned for some time of the generally favourable view of China in Australia, found in polls taken this year.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics.

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