Business as usual? Huawei and the Australian Parliament

Q: How many of our politicians have you taken over [to Huawei’s Shenzhen headquarters]?

Huawei Australia chairman John Lord: I personally have taken about a dozen over the last seven years.

Q: And it’s all expenses paid?

John Lord: No, mostly with these groups, even with non-politicians [they] will get themselves to China. And it’s only with the actual Huawei bits that we cover. Obviously if you come on to our campus, which is huge, we give you lunch.

ABC RN interview with Huawei chairman John Lord, 4 June 2018 (at 15:27)

New research from ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre shows that no company in the world has funded more trips for Australia’s federal parliamentarians than Huawei in the last eight years. Liberal politicians received most trips to China funded by Huawei, although Australian Labor Party politicians received most non–Australian government trips to China.

As the Australian government weighs a critical decision on whether to allow Huawei to participate in the 5G network, the research found that Huawei sponsored 12 trips at the federal parliamentary level over a period spanning almost eight years. While that’s not a huge number, to put it in context the next biggest corporate sponsor of trips was Fortescue Metals Group, with five trips (four to China and one to Papua New Guinea).

The other technology company sponsoring parliamentarians’ travel overseas was Microsoft, with two trips to the US. The ASPI report defined ‘corporate’ to mean companies run for profit, excluding non-government organisations, think tanks, universities, political parties, foundations, societies, and dialogues/forums.

The research looked at sponsored international travel for federal MPs. It found that the top three destinations for funded travel (flights and accommodation as well as just accommodation) were Israel, China and the United States. The top funders for each destination were, respectively, the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (a public affairs organisation), Huawei, and the Australian American Leadership Dialogue (a private diplomatic initiative). A full breakdown of the figures can be found in the report.

That Huawei has sponsored trips is not new (see here, here and here), given that the last trip declared on the registers of members’ and senators’ interests was in August 2015. But this report puts Huawei’s efforts in a broader context and shows how exceptional they have been. Globally, Huawei alone sponsored a quarter of all corporate trips over the period reviewed. And Microsoft (with two trips) was the only other company sponsoring trips to its home country.

The parliamentary registers appear to show that of the 12 flights and accommodation trips, seven were funded solely by Huawei, three were funded by Huawei and Asialink, and two were funded by Huawei and the Australia China Business Council. When contacted, Asialink stated that it paid for its staff member only and has no further information about the logistics of this trip. ACBC has not yet responded to requests for clarification.

The Huawei-sponsored trips identified in the report are not the only Huawei-sponsored trips for parliamentarians across Australia. But a lack of state and territory data for the same time period made similar analysis at this level impossible without physically accessing records held by state and territory parliaments. As the report notes, while the federal parliamentary registers of interests could be significantly and easily improved, most registers for the state and territory parliaments also need reform.

While Huawei’s sponsorship of politicians’ travel to China doesn’t breach any rules, the number of trips it has funded raises questions about whether MPs should be able to accept any funded travel from corporations. At a minimum, it raises questions about the appropriateness of allowing politicians to accept travel paid for by companies like Huawei that are lobbying to participate in Australia’s 5G network—a critical piece of national infrastructure. As Danielle Cave and Elsa Kania have noted, Huawei’s participating in this network matters because it would be obligated under Chinese law to assist the work of Chinese intelligence services.