Vic­to­rian op­po­si­tion will make Belt and Road deal with China pub­lic if elected

The Guardian Australia - - News - Gay Al­corn

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.”

Pho­to­graph: Alex Mur­ray/AAP

The Vic­to­rian Na­tion­als leader, Peter Walsh, will re­lease the mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing on China Belt and Road deal if the Coali­tion iselected on 24 No­vem­ber.

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