Senior ministers are “censoring Parliament” by refusing to back an inquiry into Australia’s relationship with China and are running scared over how the emerging superpower might react.
Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick has revealed that senior ministers in the Morrison government have told him privately they are reluctant to back the move, fearing a backlash from China.
Senator Patrick’s remarks follow a fresh warning from Trade Minister Simon Birmingham that MPs should “think before they speak” after Liberal MP Andrew Hastie compared the rise of China with the world’s failure to deal with the rise of the Nazis.
Mr Hastie, the chair of a powerful parliamentary committee on intelligence matters, had warned that “choices will be made for us” if Australia failed to come to terms with the reality of China’s ambitions.
“Unfortunately, we’ve got a situation where Andrew Hastie is right. This is a really important relationship, and we need to think about how we interact with China,” Senator Patrick said.
“We’ve got a situation where the government is, in effect, trying to censor Parliament. That’s what Andrew Hastie is up against.
“They are all timid about conducting an inquiry because they are worried about how China will view that. That’s not a reason not to do an inquiry. My inquiry is not offensive. It’s not about being inflammatory in any way.”
Senator Birmingham told the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday that Mr Hastie and others need to consider whether the remarks were helpful to Australia’s interests.
“I would certainly encourage any colleague or indeed anybody making comments around sensitive foreign policy matters, to pose a couple of questions before they do so to themselves: Is the making of those comments in a public way necessary?” he said.
“And is it helpful to Australia’s national interest?
“Now, our national interest is best served by ensuring that we seek to engage China in a constructive way, to make sure that they are responsible citizens in our region and globally. That they respect the sovereignty of our countries. That they respect intellectual property.
“But also that we continue to try to ensure their growth and the economic growth of our region. Because that has helped to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, just out of our engagement with the United States.”
Despite Senator Birmingham’s call for restraint, NSW Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who is currently overseas, said her views on China had not changed.
“My views on Beijing are well known and have been on the record for almost two years. Ongoing commentary on Beijing’s bellicose and in some cases illegal actions only reinforce and vindicate my prescient comments,” she told The New Daily.
Earlier this month, Senator Patrick co-sponsored a motion with Labor’s Kimberley Kitching to establish an inquiry into Australia’s relationship with China and the “belt and road” blueprint for influence.
Concerns about China are increasingly crossing party lines, with the Greens also raising concerns about human rights abuses against Muslims.
Senator Kitching, who chairs the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, said Labor wanted more time to develop the terms of reference but maintains the inquiry will go ahead.
“But I have talked to senior government ministers about it. They are nervous about conducting an inquiry and that in itself worries me,” Senator Patrick said.
“They are worried about how China might view such an inquiry. My view is that China will respect, and has to respect, that our Parliament has a responsibility to look at these things.”
Labor leader Anthony Albanese slammed Mr Hastie and said the Coalition was “clearly divided”, despite the fact that divisions exist within Labor also about how best to deal with China.
“He’s been slapped down by people like Mathias Cormann in the government, but he’s also been supported by Peter Dutton,” Mr Albanese said.
“Today Simon Birmingham was all over the shop.”
Earlier, Labor frontbencher Richard Marles said the question of China was complex.
“Our relationship with China is a very complex question. There’s no doubt that the growth in China and the rise of China have been hugely beneficial to Australia and to our economy, and you cited some stats in your opening which go to that point,” he said.
“But China is also as a rising power becoming more assertive and doing what great powers do and that’s seeking to shape the world around it.
“And in a sense reshape elements of the global rules-based order which has served the world … so well since the Second World War.
“It’s really in respect of that that it presents some challenging questions for Australia. And so, they’re the questions we need to work through.”
Asked if President Xi Jinping wanted to see capitalism eclipsed as suggested by Mr Hastie, the deputy Labor leader said that was not clear.
“That is not clear to me. And you know, I understand what Andrew Hastie wrote, and I understand the points he was making,” Mr Marles said.
“There was obviously a comparison in that piece which was incendiary. And I understand the reaction from China in relation to it.”