‘It is Wong, isn’t it?’: Senator’s gaffe
A THROWAWAY comment during Senate estimates has derailed questions about a controversial Chinese billionaire's influence in Australia.
Huang Xiangmo, a businessman with close ties to China's Communist party, paid tens of thousands of dollars to a lobbyist in 2016 to secure a private lunch with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, back when Mr Dutton was the minister for immigration.
Mr Huang was supposedly trying to fast-track his citizenship.
The billionaire's name has popped up before. Former Labor senator Sam Dastyari quit the federal parliament after an uproar over his own closeness to Mr Huang.
Today Mr Dutton told reporters he had done nothing wrong.
"I've never received a dollar from this individual. I had that one meeting with him over lunch. I haven't seen him since," Mr Dutton said.
Despite donating generously to both major parties, Mr Huang's push for citizenship failed. He has since been banned from re-entering Australia.
"What's he got from me? Well, he's now offshore," the minister said.
Mr Dutton did, however, use his ministerial authority to grant a special citizenship ceremony to Mr Huang's family.
That was the context for today's session of Senate estimates, which Labor used to focus on the issue.
Amid the back-and-forth, LNP Senator Ian Macdonald made an offhand remark about Mr Huang, mistakenly thinking he shared a surname with Labor's Senate Leader Penny Wong.
"Well you're not going to answer questions about Mr Wong. If you can answer that in a generic way … it is Wong, isn't it? Any relation to Senator Wong?" Mr Macdonald asked.
"No, Huang. H-U-A-N-G," Labor Senator Louise Pratt clarified.
Ms Pratt and her colleague Kimberley Kitching pressed Mr Macdonald on his remark a short time later.
"You asked about Senator Wong and Huang Xiangmo. You said, 'Huang, is he any relation to Senator Wong?' Now these names are obviously dissimilar, but if you were attempting to smear Senator Wong with an association of relations with Mr Huang, then I think you should apologise to Senator Wong," Ms Kitching said.
"Just because they are Chinese," Ms Pratt interjected.
"I am not the leader of the Labor Party in New South Wales, where I make disparaging remarks against the Chinese community," Mr Macdonald shot back.
Michael Daley, who led Labor to the NSW election last month, was embroiled in controversy in the final week of the campaign when video emerged of him claiming "young people from typically Asia with PhDs" were taking the jobs of "our kids".
"Our young children will flee, and who are they being replaced with? They are being replaced by young people, from typically Asia, with PhDs," Mr Daley said.
He apologised and said the comments "were not intended to come out the way they did". But the video contributed to a terrible final week for Labor's campaign, which ended with Gladys Berejiklian's government being re-elected.
Back in estimates, Ms Kitching said the argument was "not about" Mr Daley's remark.
"Hang on, hang on. People are throwing the name around, and it sounded to me as if you were saying Wong. And as a throwaway line I said …" Mr Macdonald said.
"It was very inappropriate," said Ms Pratt.
"You are very sensitive about it," he remarked.
"It was a desperate attempt to distract from the line of questioning," Ms Kitching said.
Tempers eventually started to fray, as Ms Kitching claimed Mr Macdonald was "smearing" Ms Wong, and he tried to turn the charge back on Labor.
"That is hardly a smear. And if Senator Wong had taken offence to that throwaway comment, in the context of Labor senators continuously, during these hearings, smearing anybody and everybody, if Senator Wong takes offence at that, without in any way bringing her senators to account, the smears that you have been doing all along, then I will apologise to Senator Wong," Mr Macdonald said.
"Senator Wong has not raised this issue," Ms Pratt said.
"If Senator Wong has taken offence then I apologise to her, but if she does take offence she has a very thin skin," he replied.
The debate over Mr Huang's influence gave the Government a different kind of headache earlier today as former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said he was "very, very concerned" about the meeting with Mr Dutton.
"Look, Peter Dutton has got a lot to explain about this," Mr Turnbull said at a speaking engagement in Sydney.
"He is supposed to be the minister responsible for the domestic security of Australia, He is supposed to be the minister responsible for ensuring our politics is not influenced by foreign actors.
"The laws that I introduced at the end of 2017 about foreign influence and foreign interference are very important laws and responded to a rising concern in the community.
"Now, the idea that the minister responsible for enforcing those laws has had a meeting of this kind does raise a lot of questions but Peter Dutton is the only one that can answer it and Mr Santo Santoro should equally be answering questions about his role."
Mr Santoro is a former Liberal MP turned lobbyist. Last night the ABC's Four Corners program revealed had boasted to clients he could get meetings with Mr Dutton.