CANBERRA – An influential Australian opposition lawmaker under fire over his close links to wealthy Chinese political donors announced on Tuesday that he was quitting the Senate for the good of his party as the government moves against foreign interference in politics.
Sam Dastyari announced that he would quit as a senator for the center-left Labor Party before Parliament next sits in February. The move comes after Cabinet Minister Peter Dutton on Monday described him as a “double agent” of China.
“I’ve been guided by my Labor values, which tell me that I should leave if my ongoing presence detracts from the pursuit of Labor’s mission,” Dastyari told reporters. “It is evident to me we are at that point, so I will spare the party any further distraction,” he added.
Dastyari refused to take questions from reporters.
The 34-year-old senator widely known as Shanghai Sam resigned from his leadership roles in Labor last month over scandals involving the wealthy Sydney-based Chinese businessman and political donor Huang Xiangmo that have raised accusations of China buying influence.
Australian security chiefs have advised against accepting political donations from Huang because of his suspected links to the Chinese Community Party.
Labor has accused the conservative government of tapping into community “China-phobia” to attack Dastyari.
A week ago, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that Australia will ban foreign interference in its politics — either through espionage or financial donations — in a move motivated largely by Russia’s alleged involvement in last year’s U.S. election and China’s growing influence on the global political landscape.
On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Turnbull’s remarks were prejudiced against China and had poisoned the atmosphere of China-Australia relations.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner and its biggest source of foreign political funds. Australian law has never distinguished between donors from Australia and overseas.
The government said Dastyari has not broken current laws, but the reformed laws would not allow a repeat of him asking Huang to pay a $1,250 travel bill that Dastyari owed.
Dutton, who will head Australia’s security and intelligence agencies as the government’s first minister for home affairs next year, accused Dastyari of being a “double agent” who should be dumped by Labor.
“Sam Dastyari can’t be beholden to a foreign power and pretend to be acting in the Australian public’s interest by being a senator in the Australian Parliament,” Dutton told reporters.
Fairfax Media reported that Dastyari gave Huang counter-surveillance advice when they met at the businessman’s Sydney mansion in October last year. Dastyari suggested the pair leave their phones inside the house and go outside to speak in case Australian intelligence services were listening, Fairfax reported.
Dastyari has not denied the reports but said he had no knowledge of whether Huang was under Australian surveillance at the time.
Media later broadcast audio of the senator misleading Chinese journalists last year on Labor’s policy on the South China Sea territorial disputes.
Australia maintains that China should respect international law, and an arbitration ruling last year found China’s broad claims to the sea were legally baseless. But Dastyari told Chinese reporters at a news conference in Sydney attended by Huang that Australia should observe “several thousand years of history” by respecting Chinese claims over most of the South China Sea. The phrasing mirrors China’s stance.
Accusations of Dastyari representing Chinese interests have continued to mount. Fairfax reported on Monday that Dastyari attempted to pressure deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek to abandon a meeting with a pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong in 2015 because of Beijing’s sensitivities. The meeting went ahead.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Dastyari made the correct decision by resigning.
“Sam Dastyari is a good, decent and loyal Australian, and an effective parliamentarian, but his judgment has let him down and now he has paid the heaviest price,” Shorten said in a statement.