Andrews hits back on China deals

28 Aug Andrews hits back on China deals

Phillip Coorey – The Australian Financial Review – Friday 28 August 2020

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has slammed the Morrison government’s plans to terminate agreements with foreign powers, which specifically target China, saying the move will further hamper his state’s economic recovery.

Sources confirmed on Thursday that Victoria’s memorandum of understanding over China’s Belt and Road Initiative will be one of the first to be terminated under the new powers.

Mr Andrews, who resisted repeated offers of a security briefing over the past month to explain the laws, is isolated with no support for his position from fellow premiers and federal Labor.

Universities were also dismayed after being “blindsided” by the proposed laws which, sources said, spell the end of Chinese-government funded study centres such as the Confucius Institute, which operate in 13 Australian universities.

The government released on Thursday a list of 130 contracts, memorandums of understanding and co-operative arrangements between foreign powers and state governments, local councils and universities which will be reviewed under new national security laws aimed at curbing Chinese infiltration. They will be cancelled if their intent is deemed to be more than just financial.

“It’s a pretty clear test, if they’re inconsistent with federal foreign affairs policy, they’ll go,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

“Where any foreign government seeks to undermine the sovereignty of Australia’s foreign policy by seeking to do deals with sub-national governments, Australia needs to protect itself from that.”

Of the 130 arrangements, 48 are with the Chinese government or government bodies.

Despite Mr Andrews’ anger, federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the Opposition would pass the legislation which will use the external affairs powers under the Constitution and apply a national security test to existing and new arrangements.

Mr Albanese offered Mr Andrews no support over the Belt and Road Initiative, which Australia and its allies regard as a vehicle to extend Chinese influence in the region and the world by funding large infrastructure projects.

“I have expressed it publicly that the government I lead would not participate in the scheme,” Mr Albanese said.

“We’ll examine the legislation, but the idea that the national interest should be looked after by the federal government when it comes to foreign policy is something that we’re very supportive of. I would regard [it] as completely unremarkable.”

The states only found out about the proposed laws on Wednesday night when Mr Morrison notified them in writing.

He said the laws should have come as no surprise given premiers and chief ministers were briefed at the end of last month by the national security agencies, which have become increasingly concerned at deals between China and lower tiers of government and the universities.

It is understood Mr Andrews did not attend that briefing because he was busy fighting the coronavirus outbreak in his state and has declined several offers since to bring him up to speed.

Mr Andrews signed a five-year MoU with China in 2018, the details of which remain vague. He and Mr Morrison are already at loggerheads over growing federal government criticism of state government failures which caused the outbreak in Victoria.

On Thursday, Mr Andrews did not disguise his anger at the likely demise of his MoU with China. He accused Mr Morrison of having nothing better to do with his time and suggested it was up to the Prime Minister to find alternatives to help Victoria’s battered economy.

“If the Prime Minister’s got time to be doing nice things then that’s fine for him. I don’t, I am exclusively focused on fighting this virus, and then making sure that we have got the strongest economy that we can possibly have on the other side of this,” he said.

“Given announcements the Prime Minister’s made today, he’ll no doubt very soon be able to list the full range of other free trade agreements and other markets that we’ll be sending Victorian products to. I look forward to that.”

Mr Andrews argued his state was not endowed with the natural resources of some others and had to explore other options.

“We have many of our own strengths and riches, but we don’t have some of the natural deposits … that are a feature of the arrangements that other states have,” he said.

Mr Andrews did not accept the Belt and Road Initiative was a threat to national security.

“No, I would never concede that point. But again foreign affairs is a matter for the federal government,’’ he said.

“My concern has always been to grow jobs. And I’ve always seen these arrangements and all of our arrangements, not just with any one country but with all the different countries, different states, different provinces, different regions that we have relationships with, they’ve always been about a passport to export.

“They’ve always been about getting more Victorian produce, more Victorian products, more Victorian economic activity.”

Victorian Liberal Senator James Paterson said Mr Andrews had not “provided any evidence whatsoever to explain what additional investment will come to Victoria as a result of his BRI deal”.

Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, who chairs the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Committee, said the Belt and Road Initiative was a clear threat to national sovereignty.

There was little support from fellow premiers. South Australian Liberal Premier Steve Marshall was broadly supportive of the new legislation while West Australian Labor Premier Mark McGowan, whose state is more dependent on China than any other, was not fussed.

The proposed legislation exempts private business deals, even with state-owned enterprises.

Mr McGowan said the only issue for WA was a 2011 MoU his predecessor, premier Colin Barnett, signed with China on the Belt and Road Initiative, and that had been dormant ever since.

“What WA has done now for 70 years is work on trade and economic opportunities with overseas countries and states and that’s worked well for WA,” he said. “Foreign affairs is the responsibility of the Commonwealth.”

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said urgent clarification on the new laws was needed.

“Universities are equal partners with government agencies in the Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce, which has devised robust guidelines that build on measures to keep our institutions and intellectual property secure,” she said.

Mr Andrew’s isolation was furthered on Thursday when Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, a Victorian, again took issue with the Premier’s request for a 12-month extension to his state of emergency powers.

“Victorians need to hear more about the road out than a longer road in,” he said. “The message of hope is needed. That’s why Victorians were so aghast when the Victorian government said that there was a prospect of the state of emergency continuing for another 12 months.”

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