Chief Minister defies Freedom of Information laws to keep secret China agreements hidden

by | Nov 9, 2020 | NT Politics | 1 comment

Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s office has refused to release the agreements he has signed with Chinese officials since coming to power in 2016, failing to provide a valid legal reason for blocking the public’s right to know.

The NT Independent filed a Freedom of Information application in June to force the Gunner Government to publicly release all of the agreements signed with Chinese officials.

After first stalling the release of information until after the NT general election, the department last week – five months after receiving the FOI application – released only the costs, a redacted internal memo and travel itineraries for the Chief Minister’s three visits to China since 2016, but ignored the request for a copy of all agreements signed and a list of all officials with whom he met on the various official visits.

Mr Gunner has repeatedly refused to disclose the exact nature of the secret document he signed with an unidentified Chinese official during a trade mission to Shenzhen last year, which the NT Independent revealed in June with a photo that originally appeared on a Chinese website.

Gunner Government China trip

Michael Gunner signs an agreement with an unidentified Chinese official

The NT Government’s ongoing secrecy around the agreement raised concerns from a Chinese foreign policy expert, who said in June that Territorians “should be concerned” about unannounced agreements entered into with China that aren’t publicly disclosed in Australia.

Mr Gunner added to confusion in Parliament in June when he claimed the agreement was related to a “sister cities” arrangement with Shenzhen. But that assertion has never been backed up with documentation and has raised further questions over what precisely he signed.

While Mr Gunner has refused to release the arrangements, an online Chinese language newspaper reported after the 2019 trip that, “His Excellency Michael Gunner and Mr. Liu Qingsheng, Deputy Mayor of Shenzhen, reached an agreement on the future strategic and pragmatic cooperation between the Northern Territory and Shenzhen”.

However, photos of Mr Liu do not match the photos of the man Mr Gunner signed the agreement with.

Adding to the secrecy of the Shenzhen agreement, the Gunner Governemnt told the ABC in August that Mr Gunner had signed a “Rizhao Municipal Government Friendship Agreement” in 2016 but failed to reference the 2019 Shenzhen signing.

The documents released to the NT Independent under FOI laws contain no mention of the 2016 or 2019 agreements.

What the released documents under FOI laws show

Mr Gunner has taken three official trips to China since 2016, the first taking place in October 2016, just months after winning office.

A heavily redacted internal memo shows the Rizhao City trip was undertaken in part with the intention of signing a Memorandum of Understanding with that city for the Arafura Games in 2019.

“It is proposed to invite Rizhao City to participate in the Arafura Games and if possible, sign a Memorandum of Understanding,” the memo stated.

But that did not appear to have eventuated and China did not agree to attend the games until 2018 when an undisclosed commercial transaction between the NT Government and Shenzhen-based Donghai Airlines was signed.

Another section of the internal memo that would have provided details of the “current situation” with China was redacted.

In a letter of decision for the FOI release, the department’s director of governance Kerryn Batten wrote that the section was redacted under Section 51 of the Information Act because “disclosing the information would prejudice inter-governmental relations between an Australian body politic and a body politic overseas or between two or more bodies politic in Australia or in the Territory”.

While that may apply to redacted sections of internal memos, the department has not acknowledged the requested “formal and informal agreements” signed by Mr Gunner and offered no reason for blocking access to the documents.

According to released documents, the 2016 Rizhao trip was “strongly supported by (Darwin Port owner) Landbridge Group” which is based in Rizhao, Shandong province. Mr Gunner also stayed at the Landbridge owned hotel in Rizhao during his visit. The total for the 2016 trip is listed as $17,332 for the Chief Minister’s travel and accommodation alone, including $942 for two nights at the Landbridge hotel that Mr Gunner apparently paid for himself and was later reimbursed. All other hotels were paid for by the government. It’s unclear why Mr Gunner personally paid for the accommodation.

2018 China trip to follow up on One Belt One Road: Gunner

In 2018, Mr Gunner travelled to Rizhao again, as well as Beijing and Shenzhen. According to the documents, Mr Gunner was in Beijing in August, around the same time the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews signed an MOU involving China’s controversial Belt and Road initiative. The NT Government has previously denied signing anything related to the BRI, despite Chinese news reports indicating that Mr Gunner had voiced his support for the program.

According to an internal memo written by Mr Gunner the 2018 trip was to present a “trade and investment” showcase in Shenzhen.

“A program is being prepared which includes Beijing and Rizhao following up on earlier consultation and engagement activities that were made during the recent One Belt One Road conference in Darwin earlier this year,” Mr Gunner wrote.

Gunner Government China trip

That trip cost $8,675 for Mr Gunner’s travel and accommodation, according to official government records.

The Chief Minister’s office only released a few pages of flight itineraries for the 2019 Shenzhen trip and did not provide a reason for not releasing the requested documents.

Questions to Mr Gunner’s office about why the agreements are being blocked from the public were ignored. According to Mr Gunner’s pledge before the 2016 NT election, building integrity in government was the key aim of his government that “elevates the public over the private interest” when it comes to releasing public information.

It’s unclear what section of the Information Act the government is relying on to withhold the public information.

But the deals will not be hidden forever. In August, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the Federal Government will introduce the Foreign Relations Bill that will force all state and territory governments to reveal all agreements signed with foreign governments. It will also enshrine the Federal Government’s veto power that could see some arrangements scrapped if found not to be in the national interest.

CLP Opposition leader Lia Finocchiaro previously called on Mr Gunner to reveal what he has signed in China.

The NT Independent is appealing the government’s refusal to release the documents.

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