Karlis Saluat & Paul Osborne, AAP
The prime minister has been accused of sacrificing his own ministerial standards, as it emerged Chinese officials believed they were meeting MP Stuart Robert in an official capacity when he helped a friend sign a mining deal in Beijing.
The opposition insists Mr Robert must go, arguing he breached the code of conduct by helping businessman and Liberal Party donor Paul Marks secure a mining deal with the Chinese in August 2014 when he was assistant minister for defence.
As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday again faced demands to sack Mr Robert, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed Chinese officials thought the now human services minister was acting in an official capacity at the signing ceremony in Beijing.
‘It’s plain that the company and the Chinese government thought they were dealing with Mr Robert in his ministerial capacity,’ Labor Senator Penny Wong put to senior DFAT official Graham Fletcher during a Senate hearing on Thursday.
Mr Fletcher responded: ‘Yes.’
A report into the minister’s August 2014 trip to China by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson, ordered by Mr Turnbull earlier in the week, has been completed but has not yet been released.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the prime minister had ‘a choice between getting rid of his minister or getting rid of his own ministerial standards’, but had been unable to make that choice.
‘What is it that this prime minister does not understand about ministerial responsibility?’ Mr Shorten told parliament.
‘It beggars belief that this minister travelling to China in his own personal capacity accidentally turns up at a signing ceremony.’
Trade Minister Andrew Robb said Mr Turnbull was right to have not rushed the investigation.
‘He’s played it by the book and the issue will come and go,’ he told reporters in Canberra.
There is speculation Mr Robert may be cleared of wrongdoing because the personal leave and homeward flight from Beijing to Singapore were endorsed by then prime minister Tony Abbott.
The developments came after Defence Department secretary Denis Richardson on Wednesday told a Senate hearing his department was aware at the time of the trip that the minister was in Beijing.
Mr Robert’s office briefed the department on the trip after he returned to Australia.
DFAT only became aware of the visit after being told by Defence in late August 2014.
Senator Wong said that as a former minister it was inconceivable to her that an Australian minister would meet a Chinese vice-minister without having a DFAT official present.
It was also revealed on Thursday that Mr Robert hosted a 2013 dinner at Parliament House with a Chinese businessman, which was also attended by Mr Abbott and Mr Marks.
Mr Robert has confirmed that the businessman, Li Ruipeng, presented himself and other coalition figures with Rolex watches, worth about $250,000 in total, which had since been returned.