Malcolm Turnbull has called on Scott Morrison to “deal with” Peter Dutton after allegations that the immigration minister met the former Australian resident billionaire Huang Xiangmo after he paid $10,000 to a lobbyist.
Turnbull, who introduced foreign interference laws in 2017, said the allegations contained in a Four Corners-Nine newspapers report regarding a meeting between Dutton and Huang following a payment to former Liberal minister turned lobbyist Santo Santoro were “very troubling”.
“The allegation is that Santo Santoro received money in return for securing privileged access to the minister on behalf of Huang Xiangmo and all of that, in circumstances where there has been rising concern about lobbyists, about foreign influence,” Turnbull said.
“Look, Peter Dutton has got a lot to explain about this.”
Earlier in the day, Morrison had defended the government’s record citing Turnbull’s foreign interference laws and highlighting instead former Labor senator Sam Dastyari’s resignation after rolling controversies regarding his relationships to Chinese-linked donors, including Huang.
“All I know is Sam Dastyari had to resign in disgrace over foreign interference and behaving in a reckless and shameful way, betraying his own country,” Morrison said.
“I think when it comes to these issue, our government’s record is squeaky clean.”
But Turnbull said Morrison could not waive off the allegations and he used Dastyari’s example as a reason for his successor to move quickly on the issue.
“Remember the furore that arose about Senator Dastyari. All the same issues have arisen again and this has to be addressed at the highest level of security, priority, urgency by the prime minister,” Turnbull said.
“The buck stops with him. I know what it is like to be prime minister and, ultimately, you are responsible and so Scott Morrison has to deal with this.”
“Scott Morrison is the prime minister and you can’t waive this off and say it is all part of gossip and the bubble. This is the national security of Australia.”
Asked later about Turnbull’s comments, Morrison said he had spoken to Dutton.
“I have spoken to Peter Dutton and there are no issues here that troubled me,” Morrison said. “No suggestion that Peter in any way, shape or form has sought or been provided with any benefit here.”
The allegations relate to the desire by Huang for Australian citizenship. The Four Corners investigation revealed Huang tried to speed up a citizenship ceremony for his wife and children late in 2014.
Dastyari claimed he was surprised that after passing on the ceremony application to Dutton’s office, it was approved within two weeks in the holiday period in January 2015.
According to the report, when Huang applied for his own citizenship in late 2015, he was already being investigated by ASIO. He was worried about his access so consulted Santoro who had boasted Dutton was one of his “best friends”.
Huang put Santoro on a retainer in 2016, according to the report, and in the same year, Huang, Dutton and the minister’s senior staffer had lunch at Master Ken’s restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown.
Dutton rejected the allegations as a “beat up” and said he met Huang as a “significant leader in the Chinese community”. Huang’s bid for citizenship failed.
“I have had that one meeting with him over lunch. I have never seen him since. What has he got from me? He is now offshore and is prevented from coming back into Australia,” said Dutton.
Dutton said that the transactions for lobbying businesses on both sides of parliament was an issue for lobbyists.
“There are lobbyists who are registered on both sides of parliament, people that operate as lobbyists,” he said.
“Their transactions and how they conduct their business is an issue for them.
Dutton said while he had never met Huang when his family’s citizenship ceremony was approved, it would be unusual for a minister to knock it back.
“You take at face value what somebody like Sam Dastyari, as a member of parliament, was vouching for and they ask for the ceremony and it would be very unusual for a minister of the day to knock that back,” Dutton said.
“So if Mr Dastyari has not been above board or misrepresented the reason for the citizenship ceremony then I think that is something that he, and frankly, Mr Shorten need to explain.”
Bill Shorten described the Four Corners revelations as unhealthy.
“It is explosive and very surprising revelations on Four Corners last night about the conduct of the minister in charge, one of the ministers in charge of national security where it is cash for access and meeting people connected to the Chinese government.
“This is very unhealthy.”