Labor Senator Sam Dastyari pressured his own party’s foreign affairs spokeswoman not to meet a Chinese political scientist and activist on a visit she made to Hong Kong in January 2015, according to a report in Fairfax Media.
The report will add to growing allegations that the senator has served the interests of China’s Communist Party more than the interests of his own party.
Fairfax Media is reporting that Senator Dastyari privately sought to pressure Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek to abandon a meeting with a pro-democracy activist opposed to Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong.
Fairfax said it had confirmed this with multiple sources who say the intervention by one of her colleagues surprised Ms Plibersek.
Rumours of attempts by Senator Dastyari to lobby Ms Plibersek over her visit to Hong Kong have circulated in Canberra for more than a year.
In August last year, Senator Cory Bernardi referred to the incident, when he said in Parliament:
“One of the stories doing the rounds is from an ALP member who was going to Hong Kong to meet with someone.
“They received a phone call from a close associate of the Chinese embassy suggesting that they do not meet with that individual.
“Quite rightly so, they said, ‘No, I’m going ahead with it’.
“Yet, when they were in Hong Kong about to meet with this individual, one of their colleagues from the ALP rang them up and begged them not to go, because it would upset the Chinese embassy.
“Who do you think that person was? I would like them to come in here and explain the circumstances.
“I would like them to explain why our own members of Parliament are being warned off, by their own colleagues, from meeting with individuals because it might upset the local embassy.”
Fairfax said it had established that Senator Bernardi’s account of what happened was inaccurate, and that Senator Dastyari did not speak directly to Ms Plibersek.
However he did “repeatedly” attempt to warn her that her meetings in Hong Kong, “would upset figures in the Chinese community in Australia … He left messages on her phone and contacted her office multiple times”.
A separate representation was made to Ms Plibersek by the then Chinese ambassador to Australia, Ma Zhaoxu, who, Fairfax reports, had also issued a warning to Ms Plibersek about her plans to meet Hong Kong activists.
Fairfax said there was no suggestion Senator Dastyari’s approach to Ms Plibersek was connected to the approach by the Chinese ambassador.
Despite Senator Dastyari’s entreaties, Ms Plibersek went ahead and met Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, an Australian citizen and prominent pro-democracy academic whose views have angered Beijing.
A spokesman for Ms Plibersek told the ABC: “Ms Plibersek’s itinerary in Hong Kong, including a meeting with a prominent pro-democracy activist, went ahead precisely as scheduled — I think that speaks for itself.”
The ABC understands Senator Dastyari’s defence to the allegation that he lobbied Ms Plibersek is that he contacted Ms Plibersek’s office after receiving an inquiry from a Sydney Chinese-language media outlet that was preparing a critical story on one of her meetings in Hong Kong.
However, to date, the senator has not identified the media outlet.
While a spokesman for Ms Plibersek told the ABC “Ms Plibersek doesn’t canvass conversations colleagues may or may not have had with her or her office. That’s not something she’s ever done”.
Today’s reports that Senator Dastyari did contact Ms Plibersek’s office stand in contrast to comments he made earlier this year to the ABC, when the senator would not confirm he had communicated with Ms Plibersek’s office over her visit to Hong Kong.
In an interview with Australian Story in July, Senator Dastyari was challenged to confirm whether he was the unnamed ALP “colleague”, referred to by Senator Bernardi, who had telephoned the “ALP member” who was going to Hong Kong.
Senator Dastyari dismissed this allegation as “rubbish”.
“I just have no idea where that’s from. I mean I’m, just, look that’s a spray in Parliament and Cory Bernardi’s political interests are spraying me from time to time, that’s politics, but I have no idea,” he said.
Australian Story asked the Senator: “So it wasn’t you?” and he responded: “Look, I have no idea. I’ve seen that speech … you’re quoting obviously from a speech in the Australian Senate. No idea”.
It was put directly to Senator Dastyari: “I’m asking whether it was you and whether you did call someone?” Senator Dastyari replied: “No. Trying to understand the motives of Cory Bernardi are far beyond the likes of mortal men.”
Senator Dastyari was sacked from Labor’s front bench ten days ago over revelations he had “mischaracterised” comments he made to the Chinese media, supporting China’s territorial claims to the South China Sea.
Last week Attorney-General George Brandis asked the Senate’s Privileges Committee to investigate whether Senator Dastyari had broken the rules governing MPs’ conduct.