Explosive allegations aired on 60 Minutes suggested Chinese operatives offered $1 million to fund Liberal Party member Nick Zhao’s tilt at federal parliament.
The 32-year-old was found dead in a Melbourne hotel room after reportedly approaching ASIO to discuss the plot.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said he was not in a position to make a statement on “operational matters” but insisted the government was taking the matter “very seriously”.
Cormann said it would be “getting a bit ahead of ourselves” to suggest the government would complain to China.
“Australia wants to have a positive and constructive relationship with China,” he told reporters in Canberra on Monday.
“(But) issues will arise that need to be dealt with and where there is bad and inappropriate conduct we will call that out and seek to have that addressed.”
The head of ASIO has issued a rare public statement confirming the domestic spy agency is “actively investigating” the allegations.
“Australians can be reassured that ASIO was previously aware of matters that were reported today, and has been actively investigating them,” Director-General Mike Burgess said.
“Hostile foreign intelligence activity continues to pose a real threat to our nation and its security. ASIO will continue to confront and counter foreign interference and espionage in Australia.”
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said Australia faced unprecedented levels of foreign interference.
“We back our agencies to do the job that we put them in place to do,” he said.
Nationals backbencher Barnaby Joyce is not surprised by allegations China tried to plant a spy in parliament.
“I know the Chinese, in one way or another, have been trying to infiltrate our parliament, whether online or directly through politicians,” he told the Seven Network.
“We must be resolute and strong and realise this is the new world order we are living in.”
Labor has asked the Morrison government for an urgent briefing and public explanation.
Deputy opposition leader Richard Marles said people needed to be confident Australia was free from foreign interference.
“We obviously want to understand everything that we can know about this,” Marles told the ABC.
“But on the face of it and what’s in the public domain right now, this is a very, very serious matter.”
Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie says he was briefed on Zhao’s death as chair of the parliamentary committee on intelligence and security.
“It was surreal, it was like something out of a spy novel happening in Melbourne with impunity,” he told 60 Minutes.
“This isn’t just cash in a bag, given for favours, this is a state-sponsored attempt to infiltrate our parliament.
“Using an Australian citizen and basically run them as an agent of foreign influence in our democratic system. So this is really significant and Australians should be very, very concerned about this.”
It is the second allegation in as many days of attempts by the Chinese government to influence Australian politics.
A self-proclaimed Chinese defector provided ASIO with details of how Chinese military intelligence officers fund and conduct political interference operations in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia.
Wang Liqiang is now seeking asylum in Australia.
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