Former Trade Minister Andrew Robb has quietly ceased his controversial $880,000 per annum consultancy with a company closely linked to the Chinese government, as the deadline looms for lobbyists for overseas state interests to sign up to Australia’s new foreign influence register.
Mr Robb’s consultancy with the leaseholder of the Darwin Port, Landbridge, was trumpeted by the Chinese-government aligned company in 2016, but became intensely controversial when an investigation by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and Four Corners revealed his fee, and that he had joined the company straight after quitting parliament.
It’s estimated that Mr Robb pocketed more than $2 million plus expenses from Landbridge. A company document revealed that Mr Robb’s consulting contract was so vague and ill-defined he would be paid even if he did nothing.
Mr Robb has confirmed that he has left Landbridge for the time being because, “at this stage, Landbridge has no other projects relevant for me to assist”.
“I had been commissioned by Landbridge for well over a year to prepare a comprehensive report on ways that Australia’s world class health industry could assist with a major improvement of China’s public health system,” Mr Robb wrote in answer to questions.
“Just before Landbridge had an opportunity to formally present my report to Chinese authorities, they were advised not to bother because the relationship between the Australian and Chinese governments ‘had become so toxic’ that the report would be binned.”
He described the situation as “reviewable,” suggesting he may begin working for the company again in future.
Mr Robb joins former foreign minister Bob Carr and former Victorian premier John Brumby in leaving lucrative roles with companies or, in Mr Carr’s case, a think tank, founded by businessmen with strong ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
Mr Carr recently announced he was stepping down as director of the Australia-China Relations Institute, which was founded by controversial billionaire political donor Huang Xiangmo. Mr Huang has been blocked from entering Australia and has had his permanent residency cancelled by the Department of Home Affairs after advice from ASIO that he may engage in foreign interference activities on behalf of the Chinese government.
Mr Brumby announced in February he was quitting the Australian board of Huawei, the Chinese telco accused by security agencies of posing a security risk to western communications infrastructure.
Mr Brumby, Mr Carr and Mr Robb have previously insisted that the Chinese government has no tangible influence in the organisations they worked for, despite evidence the organisations’ founders were aligned with the Chinese Communist Party willingly, or because of the way the party-state controls seemingly private companies.
Billionaire Ye Cheng is the owner of Landbridge, which controversially acquired the 99-year lease for the Port of Darwin in 2015. He is also a member of the national Chinese People’s Consultative Committee, an advisory body that President Xi Jinping has directed to “uphold the CPC (Chinese Communist Party) leadership without wavering”.
Mr Ye frames much of his business activity, including the acquisition of the Port of Darwin lease, in terms of advancing Beijing’s ambitious global trade and infrastructure policy “One Belt, One Road”.
Mr Robb continues to advocate for Australia to back the policy although has previously insisted this is unconnected to his Landbridge consultancy.
Late last year, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme became active with the launch of a public register for people who seek to influence the Australian political process on behalf of foreign interests. The new register is designed to ensure that, if a person is advocating on behalf of a foreign power, it is declared.
The scheme was largely prompted due to concerns about undeclared Chinese government efforts to influence Australian institutions, but applies to any lobbyist or consultant working for a company or think tank controlled by a foreign nation and involved in influencing the political process.
Lobbyists have until March 1 to register, although government sources have acknowledged that enforcing the scheme may be difficult given the lack of legal precedent surrounding its operation and the likelihood that some potential registrants will argue it does not apply to them.
Mr Robb, who quit as a minister in Malcolm Turnbull’s government before the last election, previously denied working on behalf of Beijing, and defended his contract with Landbridge, saying he was not doing business in Australia, so could not be captured by the new scheme.
In December 2017, then Attorney-General George Brandis suggested that Mr Robb would have to sign up to the new register. Landbridge confirmed Mr Robb’s departure. The company has previously denied its operations are influenced by the Communist Party and stated that Mr Robb was not engaged in political representation on its behalf in Australia.