Scott Morrison has said accusations that the Chinese-born MP Gladys Liu has inappropriate links with the Chinese Communist party are a “grubby smear”, but has refused to confirm whether security agencies have ever raised concerns about her background.
As Labor prepared to target the government for a second day over Liu’s background, the prime minister hit out at the opposition for what he called the suggestion that the member for Chisholm was “in cahoots” with the Chinese government.
“It is a ridiculous suggestion and I think it is an insult to every single Chinese-Australian in this country,” Morrison said.
“The Labor party have to take a good, hard look at themselves as to why they are pursuing this matter.
“They might want to dress it up as national security, but I think 1.2 million Australians of Chinese heritage get the point.”
Morrison said there was “no credible suggestion” of any inappropriate behaviour in relation to Liu, saying the speculation about her links to the Chinese regime were based on nothing more than a “clumsy interview”.
“What we’re left with is just a grubby smear by the Labor party who is in one of their most desperate hours, unable to explain their position on anything and so they have gone after a Chinese-Australian woman, the first so elected in this parliament. They should be celebrating her election, not attacking it.”
However, Morrison refused to provide any information on reports that security agencies had flagged concerns with the prime minister’s office about Liu’s associates that led to a “meet and greet” event being cancelled.
He said it was irresponsible for Labor to attempt such a line of questioning in parliament, which it was expected to do again in question time on Thursday.
“Anyone who sits around the national security committee of cabinet table, anyone who takes the management of our national security issues and how we deal with security agencies seriously … always knows that you are never in a position to be able to offer commentary on inquiries of that nature,” Morrison said.
“That would be to undermine absolutely the nature of the relationship between agencies and the government.”
Morrison said Liu’s Sky News interview with Andrew Bolt on Tuesday night in which she refused to criticise the Chinese government was “clumsy”.
“She is a new member of parliament and if that were the grounds for which people weren’t sitting in the parliament, it would be a pretty empty place.
“There are clumsy interviews that are given from time to time and on this occasion one was given by a new member of parliament.”
Morrison said that as a member of the Chinese-Australian community, Liu was linked to many different organisations, some of which might have conferred membership without her knowledge.
“Gladys Liu is part of a community, she is a great Australian,” Morrison said.
“What I am very concerned about – very concerned about – given what I have just outlined to you about her background, there is 1.2 million Australians of Chinese heritage in this country.
“This has a very grubby undertone in terms of the smear that is being placed on Gladys Liu and I think people should reflect very carefully in the way they have sought to attack Gladys over this matter and the broader smear that I think is implied in that over more than 1 million Australians.”
Morrison said the circumstances around Liu were very different to those of the former Labor senator Sam Dastyari, saying she had not accepted money for personal expenses, nor advocated a change of the government’s position on the South China Sea.
On Thursday morning Labor attempted to escalate the pressure on the government over Liu by suspending standing orders to demand Liu give an explanation to parliament.
The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, said Liu needed to explain to the House her membership of groups associated with the “overseas propaganda arms of the Chinese Communist party”.
Liu’s alleged ties to the propaganda machine linked to the Chinese government were first reported by the ABC, which revealed a Chinese government online record listed her name as a council member of the Guangdong provincial chapter of the China Overseas Exchange Association between 2003 and 2015.
The association was an arm of the Chinese government’s central political and administrative body, and has since been merged with the Communist party’s propaganda arm, the United Front Work Department.
In the Sky News interview Liu said she could not recall if she was a member of the group and struggled to answer questions about China’s activities in the South China Sea.
“This is a very serious matter,” Dreyfus said. “When this kind of extraordinary revelation comes to light, it goes to whether or not the member concerned is a fit and proper person to be a member of this House.”
The attorney general, Christian Porter, said the suggestion that Liu was not “a fit and proper person” to sit in parliament based on her previous membership of Chinese organisations was “laughable”.
“That is the sole basis upon which members opposite put the assertion that the member for Chisholm is not a fit and proper person to be in this place,” Porter said.
“That is outrageous. That is xenophobic and that is something that you should all be disgraced about. It’s absolutely disgraceful.”