The United States has expressed concern about China's influence in Australia’s domestic politics and wants reforms to eliminate Beijing’s ability to use financial donations to influence Australian politicians.
In an exclusive interview with the daily newspaper The Australian, departing U.S. Ambassador John Berry said he is worried about China's influence in Australia’s domestic politics. Berry said the United States objects to Beijing's ability to advance its interests by funding Australian politicians during an election campaign and said Washington was "surprised" at the extent of the involvement of the Chinese government in Australian politics.
He said the United States hopes Canberra will protect Australia's "core responsibilities against undue influence from governments that do not share our values."
The ambassador's comments follow the resignation of opposition Labor senator Sam Dastyari, who had asked a company connected to the Chinese government to pay part of a travel bill.
The affair has prompted a widespread discussion about the influence that foreign financial donors are having on Australian lawmakers.
Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says even if there is no direct evidence that Chinese funds have swayed political decisions, his concern is that Australian policy on China has been amended to suit Beijing.
“There is no doubt the Chinese government is interested in using its diaspora communities to lobby for Chinese interests. And I think we've seen that very recently over the South China Sea, where there was an intense campaign on the part of Beijing to try to get countries to moderate their reactions to the legal judgment that was brought down in the Hague a month or two ago,” said Jennings.
Both major parties in Australia have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors with overseas interests. Members of the opposition Labor party and the Australian Greens believe now is the time to ban such practices.
But former Australian prime minister John Howard believes that would be a bad move.
“I certainly do not agree with the suggestion that we should further limit the amount people can contribute or companies contribute. Fundamentally it is an attack on freedom of political activity and expression,” said Howard.
There have been attempts to regulate foreign donations. A Labor government introduced a bill to ban foreign donations to Parliament in 2010, but it never became law. Conservative government ministers have, so far, blocked a similar bill proposed by the Greens party, arguing there is no need for reform.
China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, and its future prosperity depends, in large part, on a smooth relationship with Beijing. Australia, however, must balance its commercial ties with China with its longstanding military alliance with the United States.