In a conversation with reporters after a Labor campaign launch on May 5, former prime minister Paul Keating called Australia’s security agencies “nutters” and said that the appropriate action should be to “clean them out.” The comments were in response to follow up questions related to improving Australia’s relationship with China.
Keating’s comments triggered a wave of condemnation with some voices speaking in defense of Australia’s security agencies, and others raising their concerns over the Chinese regime’s efforts to influence Australia—a topic widely acknowledged in mainstream Australian media in recent years.
What Did Keating Say?
An ABC reporter initially asked Keating, “Would an incoming Labor government have to do something to heal relations with China?”
“Is there healing to be done?” the reporter later asked.
Keating responded: “I think there’s healing to be done but I think a Labor government would make a huge shift. Just merely making the point that China’s entitled to be there rather than being some illegitimate state that has to be strategically watched.”
“Nobody is questioning its legitimacy to be there but isn’t it the more nefarious actions of the Chinese government that has our security agencies…” another reporter responded, before Keating interjected: “Look, when the security agencies are running foreign policy, the nutters are in charge, the nutters are in charge at the top. You clean them out.”
“I mean, once that Garnaut guy came back from China and Turnbull gave him the ticket to go and hop into the security agencies, they’ve all gone berko ever since,” Keating continued.
Keating appeared to be referring to an influential, classified report that John Garnaut had helped to write for the Australia Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) regarding Chinese interference in Australia. John Garnaut is a former Fairfax journalist who became an adviser to former PM Malcolm Turnbull.
“When you’ve got the ASIO chief knocking on MPs’ doors, you know something’s wrong,” Keating told ABC reporters on May 5. It is unclear what specific incident Keating was referring to.
In April 2019, ASIO head Duncan Lewis said that foreign interference threats in Australia remain at an “unprecedented level,” although he did not specify a country. Lewis’s comments came ahead of an ABC “Four Corners” episode that showed the extent of political activity, backed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in Australia.
In February, Lewis had rejected allegations from three large Chinese newspapers that ASIO was targeting the Chinese community, after the Department of Home Affairs stripped Huang Xiangmo, a billionaire, of his permanent residency while he was overseas. Lewis had in his briefings specifically emphasized that Huang was a person of interest to Australia’s security agencies due to his connections to the CCP.
“So you think they [the spy chiefs] should be cleaned out of ASIO, ASIS, the lot?” a reporter asked Keating on May 5.
“Oh yeah. They’ve lost their strategic bearings, these organizations,” Keating responded.
“Whatever you think, China is a great state, it’s always been a great state, and now has the second-largest economy, soon the largest economy in the world,” Keating said. “If we have a foreign policy that does not take that into account, we are fools.”
The coalition, currently led by PM Scott Morrison, said that Keating’s comments were “appalling,” “incredibly reckless,” and completely outrageous.”
“For what the Labor Party calls a Labor legend to go out there and attack the credibility of our security agencies that have been saving lives in this country, I think is disappointing,” Morrison told reporters on May 6, AAP reported.
After Keating’s comments, opposition Labor Party leader Bill Shorten clarified that he did not agree.
“On that particular view, I don’t agree with [Keating],” Shorten said according to AAP.
“Paul Keating is an elder statesman of Australian politics, he’s never been shy of saying what he thinks,” Shorten said, according to the ABC. “[The Labor Party has] worked very well with the national security agencies. They know that and we know that. And of course we will continue that.”
Peter Jennings, executive director of the government-established Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank (ASPI), told the ABC: “I think what [Keating] said was blatantly incorrect … The Australian intelligence community, more than most parts of government, has a very clear understanding of what China is doing.”
The Situation Surrounding Huang Xiangmo
Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra and author of “Silent Invasion: China’s Influence In Australia,” wrote an opinion piece in The Daily Telegraph sharing his understanding of what may have been behind Keating’s comments.
Hamilton described Huang Xiangmo as “the Chinese property developer who donated shedloads of money” to the NSW Labor party. Hamilton also noted that Ernest Wong, a close confidant of Huang Xiangmo, had been removed from a winnable position on the Labor Party Upper House ticket for the 2019 New South Wales state election.
“That’s what Keating meant when he attacked ASIO for ‘knocking on MPs’ doors,’” Hamilton asserted.
Wong is known to be opposed to Australia’s new foreign interference laws that were passed in 2018. Earlier, in December 2017, then-PM Malcolm Turnbull said that such laws were required to combat the “rapidly escalating” threat of foreign interference, and referred to “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” as justification for the laws.
In 2015, ASIO warned the country’s three main political parties about CCP interference in Australian politics through considerable financial donations.
Huang paid AU$55,000 ($39,150) to the fundraising arm of the Labor Party in 2015, in order to have lunch with Bill Shorten, leader of the Labor Party, amid a heated political debate on a trade deal with China, the ABC reported at the time.
In November 2017, media reports emerged on the dealings between Huang and a former Australian Labor Party (ALP) senator, Sam Dastyari, after tapes of an infamous conference were obtained by the ABC.
In 2016, then-Labor senator Dastyari hosted a press conference with Huang for local Chinese-language media and spoke in favor of the Chinese regime’s military expansion in the South China Sea. Dastyari’s remarks contradicted the Labor Party’s stance, which supported the United States’s critique of the CCP’s aggression in the region.
The ABC later revealed that Huang’s company paid for Dastyari’s legal bills in 2014. According to Fairfax, two weeks prior to the 2016 federal election, Huang attempted to use a AU$400,000 ($284,440) donation to the Labor Party as leverage to influence the party’s policy on China.
Dastyari resigned in January 2018 after repeated allegations of his close ties with Beijing, including a Fairfax report that Dastyari warned Huang that his phone was probably being tapped by spy agencies, including those of the U.S. government during a secret meeting.
Interfere Into Silence
Hamilton wrote in The Daily Telegraph on May 5: “For well over a decade, Beijing has been working hard at winning over powerful members of Australia’s political, business and university elites. They have agencies whose sole task is to do just that, and they are very good at it.”
Journalist Neil Mitchell of 3AW noted that Paul Keating is a consultant to the China Development Bank.
“There’s a conflict here you’ve got to understand,” Mitchell said on May 6. “The China Development Bank—a state-owned bank, so you’ve got a bank owned by a communist regime—[Keating]’s on the international advisory board and is saying this.”
Duncan Spender, Senator of the Liberal Democrats, told The Epoch Times that the CCP’s interference efforts have succeeded in subduing Australians into silence.
“The interference comes not in terms of individual statements about China like Paul Keating’s statement,” he said. “The worst form of interference is the silence … I’ve been thinking the interference is the silence, and I think that silence is quite deadly.”
The Epoch Times reached out to the senator for comments after he issued a media release and video in response to Keating’s “great state” comments. In the release, the senator also voiced his concerns about the CCP’s oppressive activities China, as well as its various activities to influence Australia.
“The Chinese Communist Party threatens trade whenever Australians mention their oppression,” Spender wrote in the release.
“It’s very concerning that we get [Keating] saying that China is a ‘great state’ without any mention of how China is also at the same time an abhorrent state that is doing terrible things to its people,” Spender told The Epoch Times.
“Through their various tentacles, the CCP has convinced the major parties [in Australia] that, in order to maintain a lucrative trade relationship, it is better not to talk about anything that the CCP is doing over in China, or even beyond China,” Spender said.
“Australian politicians need to be free and feel free to understand what’s going on and to be able to speak on what the Chinese Communist Party is doing,” Spender said. “Not just simply for the sake of the people subject to the Chinese Communist Party, but also for our own sake.”