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Victorian state Labor MPs are planning a ten-day junket in China to learn the country’s culture and gather “three years’ worth of social media content”, prompting national security concerns from experts and the federal Coalition.
The September trip’s itinerary, drafted by Victorian MP Will Fowles and leaked by Labor figures worried about the wisdom of the visit, also advised MPs how to utilise their $10,000 annual taxpayer-funded travel allowance by making bookings before June 30 so next financial year’s allowance remained.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews with Will Fowles, who is organising the study tour.
Occurring months after Premier Daniel Andrews faced scrutiny for a trip to China, the jaunt promises MPs “an appreciation of Chinese culture”, “a working understanding of how business in China operates”, and “an understanding of how Chinese government works”.
Backbench MPs could also take photographs of landmarks to use for “years’ worth of social media content!” the document states.
Fowles represents Ringwood, a seat in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, dominated by people of Chinese ancestry, and where Labor has targeted Chinese-Australian voters since the 2018 election and become electorally dominant at both federal and state levels. His trip was initially aimed at eastern suburbs MPs with large proportions of Chinese-Australian voters, according to sources not authorised to speak publicly.
Details of the junket, which will take MPs through Beijing, Xi’An, Shanghai and Guangzhou, emerged as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is being urged by some voices to cancel his scheduled visit to China unless the strategic rival removed bounties on Australia-based Hong Kong activists.
Fowles, a second-term MP, said he was organising a study tour and was “continuing to work through the details with the Commonwealth and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.” He did not answer questions about how he would handle security sensitivities.
“This is not a government trip,” he said.
A DFAT spokeswoman said the department was “aware” of the trip but did not answer whether it supported the trip or had any national security concerns.
A spokeswoman for Premier Daniel Andrews did not answer whether the government supported the trip and said he had “no role in approving parliamentary travel for members of parliament”.
Liberal senator James Paterson said China is “not an appropriate destination for an amateur political junket”.Credit: Rhett Wyman
James Paterson, the acting federal opposition spokesman for foreign affairs and a critic of the Chinese government, said the trip should be cancelled if it was not endorsed by Foreign Minister Penny Wong and supported by the Australian Embassy in Beijing because “this is a far too sensitive and complex relationship to be treated like a taxpayer-funded holiday”.
“MPs travelling overseas should be briefed on the personal security risks they will be exposed to, the cybersecurity mitigations they must adopt, the geopolitical sensitivities of their destination and the affiliations and motivations of people they will be meeting with,” Paterson said.
“It is not a country to visit without very careful planning and advice from experts. It’s certainly not an appropriate destination for an amateur political junket from a wannabe tour leader and a few mates to boost their social media content library.”
Countering Paterson’s view, James Laurenceson of the Australia-China Relations Institute said the federal government encouraged bilateral visits when Wong in December became the first Australian minister to visit China in three years.
Penny Wong with her Chinese counterpart Qin Gang.
“This is all a part of re-establishing normal routine connections.This trip may seem abnormal because we haven’t done them with border closures, but there’s nothing particularly remarkable about this,” he said.
Two eminent experts disagreed with Laurenceson, including Strategic Analysis Australia’s Michael Shoebridge who said the trip would be taken seriously by Chinese agencies because they wanted to build Chinese influence at all levels of government.
“This kind of group will be used by Chinese agencies to identify who is most likely to be a productive pro-Beijing voice that can be cultivated and enabled in their political futures. They might be backbenchers now, but they can play a role in ‘telling China’s story well’, to quote [President] Xi [Jinping],” he said.
Michael Shoebridge said the state MPs would be regarded as representatives of Australia.
Shoebridge, a former senior Defence Department official, said the trip could “not be all happy cultural visits and watching traditional dancing” because despite the stabilisation of the relationship, there remained deep strategic tension and state MPs would be regarded as representatives of Australia.
“They will be treated with extraordinary respect and hospitality and made to feel very special and important and valued, which is the way intelligence agencies begin to establish rapport with people.”
Swinburne University emeritus professor John Fitzgerald said it was not necessarily a troubling thing if a group of MPs went to China to strengthen the economic relationship.
“If that’s what it is, then I can’t see anybody objecting. But it doesn’t appear to be quite that innocent,” Fitzgerald, a China expert, said. “If it is caught up in electoral politics, then it might be counterproductive.”
He argued politicians who sought to play on sectional attitudes in specific ethnic groups could risk dividing the community and alienating some voters.
“Are there Labor seats placed at risk by this kind of behaviour? Labor needs to keep an eye on this.”
In relation to travel costs, the itinerary states: “The annual international travel allowance is $10,080 (for this FY). This is a use-it-or-lose-it allowance, however, expenses can be incurred in this financial year (FY23) for travel in the next financial year (FY24). Therefore, if flights, transfers and accommodation are booked and paid before June 30, then only meals and incidentals will be drawn from your FY24 budget.”
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