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Helen Liu ‘spy’ storm widens: Australia and China

Posted by Author on March 30, 2009

By Glenn Milne and Sharri Markson, The Sunday Telegraph, Australia, March 29, 2009-

THE Chinese-Australian woman at the centre of a top-level espionage inquiry has met both Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former PM John Howard, it has been revealed.

Mr Rudd is believed to have attended a private dinner in Brisbane in 2004, where he met and talked at length in Mandarin with Helen Liu.

Ms Liu is at the centre of allegations that the nation’s top spy organisation, the highly-secretive Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), tapped into the laptop of Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, without his knowledge.

The DSD allegedly discovered Ms Liu’s bank account details in Mr Fitzgibbon’s computer.

The Minister, who denies any wrongdoing, rents a Canberra flat from Ms Liu, a family friend for more than 16 years.

The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, Mr Ian Carnell, has now launched a formal investigation into claims that DSD spied on the minister and all “related matters”.

It’s now alleged that Mr Rudd attended the 2004 dinner with Ms Liu, at the invitation of another major ALP donor and known Labor supporter, Brisbane property developer Maha Sinnathamby, whose personal fortune is estimated at $571 million.

A spokesman for Mr Sinnathamby confirmed yesterday he had known Mr Rudd for more than 20 years and had dined privately with him on a number of occasions, as well as at numerous larger public functions.

But the spokesman said Mr Sinnathamby could “not recall” the 2004 dinner allegedly attended by both Ms Liu and Mr Rudd.

The spokesman said Mr Sinnathamby knew Mr Rudd personally, but he knew Treasurer, Wayne Swan “much better”.

A spokesman for Mr Rudd refused to deny the claims he had dined with Ms Liu in 2004, saying only: “The Prime Minister attends hundreds of functions and meets thousands of people every year.”

The undated photograph of Mr Howard with Ms Liu appears to have been taken at a public function. Mr Howard is known to have enduring and good relations with the Sydney Chinese business community.

He had a large number of Chinese residents in his former seat of Bennelong. Mr Sinnathamby is a major ALP donor, contributing more than $70,000 to the party over the last decade.

But the Liberal Party has also long accepted donations from Chinese-born business figures.

These have included Dr Chau Chak Wing who gave $1 million to the Coalition and almost $500,000 to the ALP in the last financial year.

Legislation aimed at banning foreign donations was voted down in the Federal Parliament by the Coalition and Independent Senator Steve Fielding only last month.

NSW Greens MP Lee Rhiannon said there is a growing Chinese influence in Australian companies, particularly extractive industries.

“We’ve got no way of stopping a continuation of these wealthy Chinese bankrolling a string of politicians and exerting their influence,” she said.

Dr Chau Chak Wing, a Hong Kong-based property developer, is understood to have been a confidant of Mr Howard, former NSW premier Bob Carr and Mr Rudd.

Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce said last week he was also concerned about large donations from China.

“In the marriage between the Australian people and the wealth of our nation, the Labor Party is having an affair with China and trying to pass it off as they’re just good friends,” he said.

Australian Securities and Investment Corporation documents show Ms Liu’s Australian company, Australia China Investments, is half-owned by Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, one of the four major financial arms of the Chinese Government.

She has been photographed with former Chinese premier Li Peng in Sydney in 2002.

It has also been revealed that defence officials may have alerted the Government to security concerns over Mr Fitzgibbon’s relationship with Ms Liu.

The Prime Minister’s office is refusing to reveal whether defence personnel told government staff there were security concerns over the relationship.

Mr Rudd’s spokeswoman said the matter was not raised with the Prime Minister’s office, but refused to comment when asked whether defence security officials raised concerns with anyone else in the Government.

The Age newspaper reported on Saturday that defence security officials had done just that with Mr Rudd’s office some months ago, but no action was taken.

Labor Party figures have speculated whether the real source of the leaked dirt file on Mr Fitzgibbon was a disgruntled former staffer and not upset Defence Department officials.

Attorney-General Robert McClelland issued a statement Friday, saying ASIO had “no information relating to Ms Helen Liu which would have given rise to any security concern regarding her activities or associations”.

Asked by The Sunday Telegraph whether Ms Liu had been investigated by ASIO and cleared, Mr McClelland declined to comment further.

Mr Fitzgibbon has rented a Canberra house from Ms Liu at a market rate and she paid for his visit to China in 2002 and 2005 – trips he initially did not declare on the parliamentary register of MPs’ pecuniary interests.

Mr Rudd, who is visiting Washington and attending a G20 meeting in London, has reprimanded Mr Fitzgibbon for failing to register the trips, but is sticking by him with the warning that he expects him to “do better”.

Defence Department secretary Nick Warner said on Friday that an initial Defence Security Authority inquiry had found no Defence spying operation targeting Mr Fitzgibbon or Ms Liu.

The Australian Chinese community is divided on Ms Liu. Some say she is highly regarded and generous; others say she is not well-known and has not donated to community charities.

Mr Tanner has said there is nothing sinister about the relationships.

“The fact that she has been photographed with former prime minister John Howard does seem to suggest that we shouldn’t assume that there’s anything particularly sinister about this,” Mr Tanner told Sky News.

“She’s a businesswoman and like many other business people she has had significant contact with public figures over the past.

“All the story illustrates … is the fact that prominent business people do tend to meet with leaders of both sides of politics.”

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