It’s not of­ten that for­eign pol­icy fig­ures in state elec­tions but it does now be­cause the Vic­to­rian govern­ment has de­cided to free­lance on re­la­tions with China. It’s bad enough that the An­drews govern­ment has de­cided to en­ter into a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing with China on its so-called Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive that’s way out­side the re­spon­si­bil­ity of a state govern­ment, and ab­sent the se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence ex­per­tise that’s com­mon­place in Can­berra.

What’s worse is they’re re­fus­ing to re­lease the doc­u­ment that they’ve signed Vic­to­ria up to.

If Pre­mier Daniel An­drews has done a good deal, why is he now em­bar­rassed to re­lease the de­tails? If it’s a dud, Vic­to­ri­ans should know, lest they end up vot­ing for the Manchurian can­di­date in this month’s state elec­tion.

Fed­eral La­bor MPs are pri­vately fum­ing that the Vic­to­rian govern­ment is play­ing games with one of our most im­por­tant re­la­tion­ships and po­ten­tially putting at risk a bi­par­ti­san ap­proach to na­tional se­cu­rity. “Ev­ery­one knows that An­drews has messed up law and or­der in Vic­to­ria. He can’t now be al­lowed to mess up na­tional se­cu­rity as well,” said one. Re­tir­ing La­bor Mel­bourne Ports MP Michael Danby openly op­posed the Vic­to­rian move be­cause the BRI was a “strate­gic pack­age” de­signed to “lever­age poor coun­tries in the South Pa­cific”.

The One Belt One Road ini­tia­tive is the name given to the se­ries of in­fra­struc­ture part­ner­ships that China has ini­ti­ated with other coun­tries, usu­ally poorer ones, in Asia and Africa, as well as the Pa­cific. It’s pitched as a Chi­nese ver­sion of the post-war US Mar­shall Plan, de­signed to get coun­tries back on their feet with cheap loans and tech­ni­cal ad­vice, but it can also be a way of putting pres­sure on other coun­tries to draw them into China’s sphere of in­flu­ence. For in­stance, China is said to now own Colombo’s main port be­cause it was built with a loan that Sri Lanka can’t af­ford to re­pay.

There’s a re­mote pos­si­bil­ity that be­com­ing a ju­nior part­ner in some kind of in­ter­na­tional in­fra­struc­ture build­ing scheme could be in Vic­to­ria’s in­ter­ests, but we’ll never know if the An­drews govern­ment won’t tell us what it is.

What we do know is the fed­eral govern­ment and op­po­si­tion are rightly wary of any deal with a for­eign govern­ment that has a sys­tem as opaque to gov­er­nance scru­tiny as com­mu­nist China.

In­deed, on both sides of pol­i­tics in Can­berra there’s been grow­ing con­cern about Chi­nese at­tempts to gain in­flu­ence and lever­age in Aus­tralia. The Gil­lard govern­ment banned Huawei from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the NBN be­cause of fears it was sus­cep­ti­ble to Chi­nese govern­ment di­rec­tion. One of the fi­nal acts of the Turn­bull govern­ment was a fur­ther ban on Huawei from in­volve­ment in the new 5G telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work be­cause of fears of Chi­nese eaves­drop­ping. Lest these wor­ries seem overblown, it should be noted that Chi­nese in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have made nu­mer­ous at­tempts to hack into the IT sys­tems of of­fi­cial bod­ies in Aus­tralia. Chi­nese man­u­fac­tured parts and Chi­nese-de­signed sys­tems only in­crease the risk they will suc­ceed.

For some time, se­cu­rity agen­cies have been con­cerned that Aus­tralian res­i­dents and cit­i­zens might be act­ing as agents of the Chi­nese govern­ment. There was the no­to­ri­ous case, for in­stance, of for­mer se­na­tor Sam Dast­yari, who adopted a pro-Chi­nese po­si­tion on ter­ri­to­rial claims in the South China Sea af­ter a per­sonal debt had been paid by an Aus­tralian­based Chi­nese bil­lion­aire. There have long been anx­i­eties about the ap­par­ent abil­ity of the Chi­nese em­bassy to mo­bilise stu­dents res­i­dent in Aus­tralia to sup­port, or to op­pose, mea­sures in re­sponse to Chi­nese govern­ment pol­icy; hence the re­cent leg­is­la­tion, still be­fore the par­lia­ment, to reg­is­ter for­eign agents op­er­at­ing in Aus­tralia.

You’d think at least some of this would have rung alarm bells with the Vic­to­rian govern­ment be­fore it joined the BRI. But just as stan­dards re­gard­ing min­is­te­rial pro­bity and co-op­er­a­tion with po­lice seem to elude this Pre­mier, so too does judg­ment.

Yes­ter­day, it be­came murkier when it emerged that one of An­drews’s key staff was a “spe­cial con­sul­tant” to a lo­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Shen­zhen As­so­ci­a­tion of Aus­tralia, that is guided by the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party. This ad­viser has vis­ited China a num­ber of times with An­drews and claims to have in­flu­enced his boss’s China strat­egy. What­ever might have been his in­tent, it’s clear the Pre­mier has strayed into wa­ters that are far too deep for state gov­ern­ments.

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