Daniel Andrews’s Department of Premier and Cabinet has refused access to details of crucial national security advice it received before signing up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Documents obtained by the Victorian opposition under Freedom of Information laws show emails were exchanged between the Andrews government and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade just months before the deal in October 2018.
Source: Rachel Baxendale and Damon Johnston, News Corp
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The substantive content of the emails has been blacked out, with Mr Andrews’s department claiming its publication would “prejudice relations between Victoria and the commonwealth”.
Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien slammed the secrecy, saying it was designed to protect “Labor’s cosy deal with the Chinese government”.
“With the Chinese government hitting Victorian farmers with a punitive 80 per cent barley tariff, we deserve a government that will put Victorian jobs first,” he said.
“Andrews promised to be transparent and accountable when he was elected, but his actions on his shonky Belt and Road deal show he is far from that.”
Victoria became the only Australian jurisdiction to join the BRI when it signed an MOU in 2018, breaking ranks with Canberra, which sees the scheme as a vehicle for Chinese regional and global expansion.
The four-page MOU said Victoria would work with China to promote the “connectivity” of policy, infrastructure, trade, finance and people, while acknowledging the state was “welcoming and supporting” of the BRI and would promote “the Silk Road spirit”.
An influential Melbourne-based organisation, the Australia-China Belt & Road Initiative, was involved in persuading Mr Andrews to ink the deal.
The ACBRI has hired former federal Liberal minister Andrew Robb and federal Labor minister Lindsay Tanner to help sell its message. Its founder and chief executive is former Chinese journalist Jean Dong Its website says: “This organisation will engage pioneering business leaders from China and Australia with a purpose of articulating the relevance of the Belt & Road strategy to Australian industries and identifying practical opportunities for expanded trade and investment.”
Before defying federal government security advice and signing up to the BRI, Mr Andrews spoke at an event involving the ACBRI.
According to the organisation’s website, the Premier spoke enthusiastically about closer business ties between China and Victoria, saying: “There’s an energy in Victoria-China relations that’s not been there in the past, there’s a real sense of the opportunities of this relationship — a complex, multilayered relationship, one based not just on transactions, but one about trust … a true partnership.
“It’s such a competitive market, so many parts of our region and our world are bidding and vying for an increased share of Chinese investment [and] influence over Chinese policymaking.
“Whether it be in construction, design, professional services — all the component parts of any significant infrastructure undertaking — we have a unique perspective, a wealth of knowledge and a hoard of experience to lend.”
The Andrews government has continually refused to confirm whether proper security or risk assessments were undertaken ahead of the deal being struck.
In an email dated June 8, 2018, to the director of DFAT’s China Economic and Trade Section, a senior policy adviser in Mr Andrews’s department’s East Asia team states that a colleague has been in verbal contact “regarding a draft Belt and Road MOU”.
“Please find a marked-up version, which reflects our feedback,” they write. “Look forward to hearing your thoughts.”
A DPC “East Asia and Latin America manager” followed up on June 12: “Thanks (redacted) for your help on this. My executive director is keen to land this ASAP and is under some time pressure from further up. Do you have a sense of when you might be able to come back to us with a view. This is a high priority for Victoria. Apologies for being so pushy.”
The Andrews government said all FOI requests were managed in accordance with relevant legislation. “We don’t comment on security matters,” a spokeswoman said.