Little did I know when I appeared in front of a Senate committee last week that I would be at the centre of a national controversy about loyalty tests.
I appeared at the Inquiry into Issues Facing Diaspora Communities to present research I had done earlier this year about the representation of culturally and linguistically diverse people in Australian politics. Despite our cultural diversity, Australia does far worse when it comes to representation than other Westminster democracies like the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand.
Instead of being asked about my statement or submission in detail, Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz tried to subject me to de facto loyalty test by demanding that I and two other Chinese Australians ‘unequivocally condemn’ the Chinese Communist Party.
My views on China are on the record and I am always willing to have a respectful and robust discussion, but I was not going to be bullied into a cheap ‘gotcha’ test by the Senator. It felt like a hoop that he wanted me and the fellow witnesses to jump through, a hoop there only for Chinese Australians.
I refused to play along with what I felt was a demeaning charade, especially given I was born in Australia and my family has never lived in the People’s Republic of China.
I have been heartened by the many Australians that have reached out to signal their support, but ultimately, this is not about me. It is about a degradation of our democratic institutions and whether we tolerate and legitimise behaviour that singles out individuals solely on the basis of their cultural background.
I am under no illusions that Senator Abetz is unlikely to apologise or reflect on how damaging his actions were to Australia’s interests but that does not prevent his colleagues from calling out his behaviour. As of Wednesday morning, first-term Liberal MPs Andrew Bragg and Fiona Martin have made comments expressing concern, even if they did not directly mention Senator Abetz. Their comments are welcome and appreciated.
What has been deafening is the silence from the senior leadership of the Morrison Government. The Prime Minister was asked and gave a non-answer that ‘normal practices’ should be followed. In Senate Estimates, the Liberal Deputy Senate leader Senator Michaelia Cash deferred to Senator Abetz and feigned ignorance. The Acting Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Alan Tudge, has been missing in action.
Even if Senator Abetz’s actions were not endorsed, the silence implies tolerance. That has a chilling effect on our democracy where Australians are subjected to a de facto loyalty test, solely on the basis of their cultural background. This is not a partisan issue; this is about confidence in our democratic processes.
We are already seeing the impact of his behaviour in action. UTS academic Wanning Sun has stated she is unlikely to appear before the Committee despite providing a submission. She is arguably Australia’s foremost expert on the use of WeChat. Her expertise would have been invaluable. Instead, she has said she does not want to be subjected to a trial and have her expertise ignored. A witness at a previous hearing also expressed her fear, on social media, that she would be the subjected to a similar questioning as we were and almost did not appear. As a big believer in our democratic institutions, it is absolutely heartbreaking that Chinese Australians feel this way.
The sheer irony is that Senator Abetz’s behaviour was counterproductive to opposing the actions of the Chinese Communist Party and only reinforced many of the points that Yun Jiang, one of the other witnesses, made in her opening statement that Chinese Australians are unwilling to participate in discussions because their loyalties are constantly questioned and views are taken out of context.
None of this diminishes the seriousness of human rights abuses in China such as in Hong Kong or Xinjiang, the real issue of foreign interference or the genuine fears that dissidents have of the People’s Republic of China. Australia should act and do more.
But we do not do ourselves any favour if we pretend there are no unforeseen consequences if the behaviour of Senator Abetz is tolerated. The message it sends is that our democracy believes it is acceptable for Chinese Australians to be collateral damage. Ignoring very real concerns as politically inconvenient sends a stronger message to the Chinese diaspora than any propaganda message from the People’s Republic of China ever could.
If we believe in the importance of democracy, equality and the rule of law, we need our leaders to be clear and unequivocal that singling out Australians, solely on the basis of their cultural background, to subject them to a loyalty test, is unacceptable. It will demonstrate the strength and resilience of Australia’s multicultural liberal democracy
Osmond Chiu is a Research Fellow at Per Capita. He tweets @redrabbleroz