Former trade minister Andrew Robb has slammed his ex-colleagues Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce, as well as Australia’s security agencies, over what he sees as anti-China sentiment.
- Mr Robb said his work on a project in China was “put in the bin” due to toxic relations
- He blames former colleagues for making tactless comments about China
- Critics returned fire, labelling Mr Robb’s statements as “laughably silly”
In a wide-ranging interview with AM, Mr Robb confirmed he had been working with the Chinese company Landbridge on a plan to develop a health precinct in China, designed to train thousands of doctors and treat millions of patients.
“In terms of health, many parts of China are still third world,” he said.
Mr Robb said the precinct would be similar to the Texas Medical Centre, the largest medical facility in the world.
But he said his employment with Landbridge ended “in September, October last year” when the company’s chairman was told Beijing would not accept the proposal.
“He was told in no uncertain terms by the senior officials that unfortunately the relationship between Australia and China had become so toxic that this would be put in the bin,” Mr Robb said.
Much has previously been made of Mr Robb’s $800,000 Landbridge salary, but he said he had done nothing wrong.
“I’ve been pilloried and used and abused. [It’s] been very helpful to try and sell some security measures and things but I understood my responsibilities as much as anyone, more than most I think,” he said.
“I was approached two months after I finished in parliament and certainly about four or five months after I’d finished in cabinet and the (Landbridge) chairman said to me, ‘would you consider coming and doing some work for me’ and I said ‘well I’d love to … but I’ve been a minister in a cabinet, in a related area, I can’t do any work for you in Australia and I can’t do it for 18 months’.
“He said ‘I’m not looking for you to do any work in Australia’.
“I’ve never spent one minute doing work in Australia, notwithstanding what you read endlessly about this being treasonous and greedy and all the rest of it.”
Mr Robb said he did not support the now-cancelled pension scheme some parliamentarians were entitled to, but believed Australia must pay its MPs more.
“I’m not on a pension, like half of us there now are not on a pension — I get $20,000 a year,” he said.
“So if you want to look after your family, who’ve made sacrifices for 35 years, you know, that’s what I’m doing.”
Mr Robb was critical of Australia’s security agencies, saying he regularly attended meetings of cabinet’s national security committee when he was investment minister.
“We see a lot of nose touching by the security people — ‘if you only knew what I know, you’d be horrified’,” he said.
“Well tell us. Let us know. I was in the National Security Committee and I’ve gotta say I didn’t learn much more than I was reading in the papers for three years.”
He was also unhappy with former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce.
“We had our deputy prime minister last year stand up in front of a Channel 9 TV camera and say ‘I want all Australians to know that ISIS is not our security threat, China is our security threat …’ — this is irresponsible,” Mr Robb said.
But it was former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to quote the founder of modern China that was the tipping point for relations souring between China and Australia, Mr Robb said.
“When the prime minister of Australia, in bringing in a register of people who are working for foreign companies, got up and in Mandarin said something, paraphrased that for Australia, as standing up for its freedom … they [the Chinese] were just gob-smacked and deeply offended,” he said.
Pressed as to whether he believed China was trying to infiltrate Australia’s political system, Mr Robb said: “Look, we’re all engaged in soft power … they’ve found one student that stood up in a classroom and tried to influence the lecturer — and was unsuccessful, by the way.”
Mr Joyce wasted no time hitting back at Mr Robb, defending his comments about China posing more of a threat to Australia than the Islamic State group.
“Well, it sounds like myself, Malcolm Turnbull, ASIO, ASIS, are all on the wrong page and Andrew’s on the right page — well, we’re in the presence of genius here,” he said.
“The concern of course is not with the Chinese people, not for one second, that’s ridiculous, it’s with basically a unilateral state organisation that works at the behest overwhelmingly now of one person.
“We welcome a large China, we think it’s going to be a great thing for the world.
“The reality is, ISIS has no capacity to ever conquer Australia or basically subdue our country … China of course could, could do it very easily. So where lies the fault in what I said?”
Mr Robb also took a swipe at the security think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, accusing it of being “a mouthpiece for the US security agencies and its defence industry”.
Peter Jennings, the institute’s executive director, said it was a “laughably silly comment”.
“Frankly, there have been few commentators as critical as I have been of Donald Trump’s presidency,” Mr Jennings said.
“I don’t believe that we have heard anti-China sentiment. I think what people have been concerned about has been frankly the interference of the Chinese Communist Party in Australian domestic politics and amongst Australians of Chinese ethnicity.”
In a statement, a Government spokesman said Australia had a long-standing, constructive relationship with China, “based on mutual benefit and mutual respect and as with any relationship there will sometimes be issues on which we disagree that we will discuss respectfully”.
“We make no apology for doing what’s required to keep Australians safe and defend our sovereignty and our broader national interests,” the statement concluded.
By Eliza Borrello