DESPITE the work of United Front groups and their leaders having been detailed in the media and in Parliament including the fall of Labor’s Sam Dastyari, why would former Prime Minister Abbott, John Caputo, MPs John Sidoti and Mark Coure attend as “VIP guests” at a Chinese New Year function, if it were not more about political donations?
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Surely they would have been briefed? It just doesn’t wash, does it?
Former prime minister Tony Abbott, his fundraising chief and several NSW Liberal MPs have been hosted by the Chinese Communist Party’s top Australian lobbyists and propagandist, including several facing pressure to declare their Beijing connections on the nation’s new foreign influence register.
Mr Abbott, fundraiser John Caputo and state MPs John Sidoti and Mark Coure, were all VIP guests at a Chinese New Year function attended by Beijing’s highest ranking United Front affiliates in Australia.
The United Front Work Department is a unique agency overseen by the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee and which leads the party’s United Front operations aimed at influencing overseas Chinese and Western elites, including politicians, to back Beijing’s aims.
When Mr Abbott was informed by The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald that associates of the United Front were at the event, he said: “If I knew [United Front groups were there], I wouldn’t have gone. The last thing I am is a patsy for the Chinese government.”
United Front members control many key Chinese-Australian community organisations, presenting a dilemma for politicians and Chinese-Australians who want to attend community events but do not support the Communist Party.
This dilemma fuelled the fall of Labor’s Sam Dastyari, who relied on United Front figures to raise campaign funds, only to later face accusations he had been co-opted by United Front organisations.
Among several hundred guests at the Chinese New Year dinner on January 27 was Sun Yantao, a Chinese Consulate official responsible for Australian United Front work, and Hung Ly, the president of Australia’s peak United Front group, the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC).
Also present was Beijing’s chief propagandist in Australia, media mogul Tommy Jiang, who runs media outlets in partnership with the CCP’s propaganda arm.
Mr Ly declined to comment.
Mr Jiang, who in 2018 was named as a delegate to a key United Front body in China, has previously attacked as baseless claims made by ASIO, the federal police and the federal government that the CCP is seeking covert influence in Australia.
An organisation Mr Jiang oversees as president, the Chinese government endorsed Australia Chinese Dongbei Association, organised the dinner and raised several thousand dollars for the association.
Another VIP at the dinner was Yang Dongdong, who chairs the Australia China Business Summit and who has described himself as part of the “united front system”.
Mr Jiang and the ACPPRC are likely to top the list of individuals or groups required to register on the government’s pending Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, which is being introduced to increase the accountability of United Front entities.
The scheme is also designed to force figures and groups lobbying for any foreign governments to register by early March, with enforcement of the scheme looming as a major challenge for whoever wins the next federal election.
Since Mr Dastyari’s resignation in late 2017, politicians have had far fewer excuses for claiming ignorance when supporting United Front group functions.
The work of United Front groups and their leaders has been detailed in the media and in Parliament.
While he was prime minister in 2015, two of Mr Abbott’s top advisers, national security official Andrew Shearer and foreign affairs expert Michael Thawley raised concerns with Mr Abbott about influence operations carried out by United Front members.
ASIO later raised similar concerns with senior Coalition and Labor officials, zeroing in on political donors involved in the ACPPRC.
Mr Abbott said many of the Australian Chinese gatherings he attended had multiple sponsors and he did not scour invitations looking for Communist Party connections.
Mr Caputo– who for years has raised donations for Mr Abbott- also said he was unaware who would be at the event. Both Mr Caputo and Mr Abbott said no money was raised at the dinner for the Liberal Party.
Mr Caputo previously encouraged the former ACPPRC president, billionaire Huang Xiangmo, to donate to Mr Abbott’s campaign fund and has also spoken to Mr Huang about his stalled citizenship application, which ASIO has blocked on national security grounds. Mr Huang denies any wrongdoing.
Mr Sidoti also said he was unaware the event was hosted by United Front figures.
“I’ve got 12,800 Chinese in my electorate and that’s why I attended,” he said.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s CCP influence researcher Alex Joske said the event included “some of the most prominent and active United Front players” to ever share a room in Australia.
“These United Front figures seek to be seen as representatives of the Chinese community but they are in fact advocates of CCP interests.
They dismiss claims of the CCP’s foreign interference campaigns and instead emphasise the friendly trade based relationship with China,” he said.
Nick McKenzie is an investigative reporter for The Age. He’s won seven Walkley awards and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs.
Nick is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Chris Uhlmann reports on federal politics from the Canberra Press Gallery with an interest in national security, defence policy and China.