Following Human Services Minister Stuart Robert’s resignation on Friday you’ve got to wonder if there is something to Chinese superstition. At the heart of the tale is the story of Rolex watches given as gifts to Tony Abbott, Margie Abbott, Ian Macfarlane, and Stuart Robert in June 2013.
On the face of it Robert resigned because of a trip to Beijing while he was Assistant Minister for Defence in the Abbott Government. It was, for all intents and purposes a private visit paid for by Robert. However, his undoing was that he appeared to be there to support his close friend and Liberal Party donor Paul Marks. Marks was in Beijing to sign a deal between his company, Nimrod Resources, and China’s state-owned enterprise Minmetals. Critics claimed that Robert’s presence gave the impression the Australian Government approved and supported the deal.
That’s the way people think in the centrally planned economy that China is. Nothing important happens there without government planning and approval. I wrote in last week’s The Australian newspaper that Stuart Robert’s visit to Beijing should be instructive for every Australian politician, federal and state. I said, “Many of our politicians become doe-eyed over China. They seem to think butter doesn’t melt in the mouths of China’s otherwise shrewd businesspeople.”
However, I went on to say, “The fact is in China an MP is seen as a government official with as much standing as any minister. A photo with one is like having the government’s imprimatur for whatever you are doing.” Not surprisingly, Minimetals used photos of Robert’s presence at the signing ceremony with Nimrod Resources on the Minmetals website. My full piece on the traps and pitfalls awaiting Australian politicians visiting China can be read on The Australian’s website (note that a subscription is required).
Stuart Robert had to resign not so much because he breached ministerial standards as that he gave the impression that he had. His folly was foolishness. A minister should have known better than turn up at a business contract signing ceremony in Beijing. Had he checked with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and its embassy in Beijing they would have warded him off the trip.
The conspiracy of a ticking watch
But it is very likely that Stuart Robert’s fate was sealed more than two-and-a-half years ago. It happened at a dinner in the Parliament House dinning room in Canberra when Robert, along with then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and opposition industry spokesman Ian Macfarlane, met with Chinese billionaire Li Ruipeng.
It has been reported that at the dinner Li produced several plastic bags containing Rolex watches, which he presented to the then opposition heavy weights. A fourth watch was given to Mr Abbott for his wife Margie. There is some dispute as to whether four or five watches were presented. I’m going with four for reasons I will soon explain. Abbott’s chief-of-staff, Peta Credlin, who was also at the dinner denies having received one. There is no reason to doubt her, as will become clear below.
The recipients of the gifts believed the watches were fake because Rolex watches are a dime a dozen on the streets of China’s big cities and towns. At least one of them, Ian Macfarlane, declared the watch as being worth less than $500 and was allowed to keep it by the Speaker’s office. However, Macfarlane later started to suspect the watch maybe genuine and had it valued. It was indeed real – it was valued at $40,000. He acted swiftly and alerted his colleagues who all returned their watches – four watches. By this time Abbott was Prime Minister, Macfarlane was Minister for Industry, and Robert was Assistant Minister for Defence.
Abbott and Macfarlane of course lost their jobs in the coup that brought Malcolm Turnbull to the Lodge. On Friday Robert had to fall on his sword over his Beijing trip.
For Robert it was a very long burn, but the fates of all three were sealed at that dinner with Mr Li.
Here’s the thing: In Chinese culture it is considered bad luck to give someone a clock or watch as a gift. It is tantamount to wishing them their mortal demise. The reason is that the Chinese words for “giving a clock” are a homonym for “attending a funeral” (though written differently they are both pronounced sòng zhōng). The ticking hands of clocks and watches are also considered symbolic of running out of time – never a good omen. Chinese simply do not give clocks and watches as gifts to people they like. (For more on gift-giving taboos in Chinese culture see this page on the China Highlights website.)
Add to that the number of watches presented to Abbott and his colleagues. Here’s why I think it was just four watches. Five doesn’t make a lot of sense in Chinese culture. In Chinese numbers like six and eight are considered auspicious because they are homonyms for good luck and fortune, respectively. Four is very bad luck – it is a homonym for death. Ask any Sydney real estate agent and they will tell you houses with street numbers containing six and eight do better on the auction block than those containing four.
Now here’s the rub; Li could have given them boxes, even truckloads, of noodles. Li made his fortune in instant noodles. He is China’s noodle king. It would have been a nice personal touch. But most important noodles are especially auspicious in China. Traditionally noodles, not cake, are eaten at Chinese birthday parties because long noodles are symbolic of a long life.
Li could have wished Abbott and his colleagues long political lives. Instead he relegated them to the dustbin of Australian political history with some very expensive Rolex watches. He is certainly an assassin of style.
The lesson for our politicians: beware of Chinese bearing gifts; they could be giving you the kiss of death.
– By Alistair Nicholas*
* Alistair Nicholas is an Executive Vice President and Senior Advisor with Powell Tate Australia.