Nationals leader says, ‘What’s so secret? There’s an issue with trust and credibility’.
The Victorian opposition has pledged to publicly release the memorandum of understanding between the premier, Daniel Andrews, and the Chinese government on Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative it if wins the 24 November election.
In October Victoria became the first and only state to sign on to the signature global trade and infrastructure initiative of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. Andrews said it would create jobs and investment.
Neither federal Labor nor the federal government support Australia formally signing on to Belt and Road, concerned about its strategic consequences as China seeks to expand its influence.
On Wednesday the prime minister, Scott Morrison, again rebuked Victoria for going ahead with the final agreement without talking to the commonwealth.The Victorian government should release the MOU and concentrate on state issues such as crime rather than foreign policy, he said.
“Foreign policy is the domain of the commonwealth government,” he told 2GB radio in Sydney. Victoria going it alone “creates mixed messages, and it would’ve been helpful if [Victoria] had been a bit more engaging on that”.
“He should be upfront with the Victorian electors. I mean, he’s in the middle of an election at the moment.”
Andrews has refused to release the MOU, announced on 25 October. He said: “That’s the way these things work.”
But the Victorian Nationals leader, Peter Walsh, told the ABC if the Coalition was elected it would release it. He said New Zealand, one of 68 countries to sign with China, had released its MOU.
“We will make it public,” Walsh said. “What’s so secret about this that Daniel Andrews won’t release it? There’s an issue with trust and credibility.
“It’s an MOU. It’s not a contract with a private company, so there’s no reason that it can’t be made public.”
The shadow treasurer, Michael O’Brien, also said it was “important that Victorians be fully informed about this”.
The Victorian government has said the federal government was not being consistent because an MOU between Australia and China signed last year about cooperation on infrastructure projects in third countries was kept secret.
That was related to the Belt and Road, with the then trade minister, Steven Ciobo, telling Fairfax Media that “both parties are required to agree to release the text of the MOU and China has not agreed to do so”.
The MOU was expected to relate to conditions for Australian companies to cooperate with China, including outlining the transparency of projects.
There has also been a confusing federal response to Victoria’s announcement. Both the trade minister, Simon Birmingham, and the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, were initially positive. Payne said it was “not in the least” embarrassing that the commonwealth was not consulted.
The Belt and Road refers to a massive infrastructure strategy involving routes linking China to the rest of the world. It is unclear why it was a priority for Victoria, or why it announced the agreement so close to an election, although Andrews has aggressively pursued closer economic ties with China.
In his four years as premier, he has visited China four times, and was the only state leader at last year’s Belt and Road forum in Beijing.
When announcing the MOU, Andrews said: “In four years we have more than tripled Victoria’s share of Chinese investment in Australia, and nearly doubled our exports to China.
“It means more trade and more Victorian jobs and an even stronger relationship with China.”
In an interview with Fairfax Media in July, Andrews said Victoria was “now firmly China’s gateway to Australia”.
Victorian companies would hope to bid for work when China builds major projects in the region. The Andrews government also has a multibillion-dollar infrastructure program planned, and the Belt and Road could possibly be a gateway for increased Chinese investment.
The federal government said that although it was aware in June that Victoria was considering an MOU with China, it did not know it had been signed until the announcement last month.
Both the government and federal Labor have concerns that state governments focus on economic benefits and have little interest in strategic issues. A former Labor defence spokesman, Stephen Conroy, told Sky News he was “surprised” by the deal and it should not be kept secret.
“China is playing Australia on a break at the moment,” he said. “It likes to punish, likes to reward, it likes to play favourites. And it is playing people off each other.”
By Gay Alcorn