Former minister set up media op with influence accused

Former federal multicultural affairs minister Alan Tudge was concerned about the "ugly racism" the Australian Chinese community faced as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in 2020. 

So when Di Sanh Duong approached him with an offer of donating more than $37,000 raised by the community, Mr Tudge saw it as an opening to counter the negative sentiment by offering to set up a media opportunity.

Mr Tudge on Monday gave evidence at a County Court trial for Duong who is accused of using a $37,450 donation, fundraised from members of the Chinese community, to gain influence with the former minister.

Alan Tudge (left) and Di Sanh Duong (2nd right, file image)
Alan Tudge said his office organised a media opportunity for Duong to present a novelty cheque.

The 68-year-old has pleaded not guilty to the commonwealth charge of preparing for or planning an act of foreign interference.

Mr Tudge said his office had organised a media opportunity in conjunction with the Home Affairs Department where Duong would present a novelty cheque to the Royal Melbourne Hospital's chief executive.

The plan was hatched after the accused contacted him asking how to donate the money raised to support Australia's efforts to combat the virus.

"There was a lot of, in my view, community anxiety about Chinese people in Australia under the belief that the virus emanated from China and people with Chinese heritage in Australia were complicit in the virus escaping," Mr Tudge told the jury. 

"When (the request) came through, I thought this was a good cause to highlight ... (That the Chinese community) wanted to make a contribution to Australia in tackling the virus."

The former minister denied politics was discussed during the meeting and said he had suggested Duong's organisation the Oceania Federation of Chinese Associations to give money to "perhaps the best known hospital in Australia".

Former Liberal Party candidate Di Sanh Duong (centre)
Duong (centre) has pleaded not guilty to preparing for or planning an act of foreign interference.

Mr Tudge was quizzed about his relationship with Duong whom he first met in 2018 as minister for citizenship and multicultural affairs during meetings with Chinese community leaders to discuss policies around toughening English language provisions for migrants.

When asked by prosecutor Patrick Doyle about doing a background check on Duong, Mr Tudge said issues weren't brought up to warrant any concern.

Duong in April 2020 contacted the minister's office to offer the donation but Mr Tudge said he couldn't recollect him from their meeting in 2018.

A few months after the media opportunity, Duong again contacted the then minister's office to ask for his assistance with a COVID-19 travel exemption for his friend.

Mr Tudge said he was not shown that email and his office had referred the matter to the Australian Border Force which was responsible for travel exemptions.

Mr Tudge said when it came to securing meetings, constituents would get first preference.

"Requests come from everywhere. My priority is for locals. It is then a decision to see others because you’re so 'choc-a-bloc'," he said.

The trial before Judge Richard Maidment continues.

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