Opposition and crossbench MLAs have called on Chief Minister Michael Gunner to fully and publicly disclose the nature of his dealings with China in Parliament, after the NT Independent revealed he signed a secret agreement with unknown Chinese officials while on an official taxpayer-funded trip to Shenzhen last October.
Mr Gunner’s office continued to refuse to disclose the nature of that agreement on Wednesday, as well as the extent of Mr Gunner’s potential involvement with a Chinese Communist Party-aligned organisation called the Shenzhen Australia Association.
Photos obtained by the NT Independent, that originally appeared on a Chinese government website, show Mr Gunner signing documents with the Chinese official in a ceremony that was never made public in Australia.
Several members of the trade delegation told the NT Independent they were also not aware of the signing, including representatives of Charles Darwin University, the City of Darwin and local business leaders.
The secretive nature of Mr Gunner’s dealings has angered Territory politicians, with Territory Alliance leader Terry Mills calling the secrecy around the deal and Mr Gunner’s undivulged links to China “alarming”.
“For the Chief Minister to sign an agreement that is promoted on a Chinese government website, but not disclosed to the people the Chief Minister represents, is alarming,” he said.
“At best, Michael Gunner is totally naive or worse, he knew what he was doing.
“And even if the bright lights and hospitality caused him to lose his bearings, he should at least have had the wit to know that signing an agreement with a foreign government representative requires full disclosure and explanation to the people and nation he represents.”
Independent Member for Stuart and former Labor MLA Scott McConnell said he also held serious concerns about Mr Gunner’s secretive dealings in China and called on the Chief Minister to explain to Territorians who he met with and what deals were signed while he was representing the NT overseas on official business.
“Will he say he can’t explain it because he threw out the agreement?” Mr McConnell said. “We need to know what documents he signed, with what parties, while on official visits to China on behalf of the NT Government.
“He needs to table those documents at the next sittings in Parliament. We need to know what deals he has signed.”
Chief Minister Michael Gunner has history of undisclosed deals with Shenzhen
Mr McConnell, who has previously called for a royal commission into the NT Government’s uncontrolled spending, said Mr Gunner had a duty to Territorians to also divulge the details of a 2018 taxpayer-funded commercial arrangement with China-based Donghai Airlines to provide direct flights between Shenzhen and Darwin.
“We need to know how much money taxpayers paid directly to Donghai Airlines,” he said. “They can’t claim commercial in confidence (excuses) because there are no other interested parties. This is a direct relationship, where the NT Government is essentially buying a service and we need full disclosure.
“There is deep community concern at the moment around the nation’s relationship with China, and we can’t afford to have the Chief Minister signing secret deals without disclosing them.”
CLP Opposition leader Lia Finocchiaro added her voice to calls for Mr Gunner to come clean about his dealings in China.
“It shouldn’t be too much for the Chief Minister to explain this agreement he signed,” she said. “If he won’t, he needs to explain why he won’t.”
Mr Gunner has also faced criticism over comments he made around the Darwin Port lease to Chinese-owned Landbridge Corporation. Despite claiming he was against the lease of the port, Mr Gunner sat on a committee with Ms Finocchiaro, that recommended the then-CLP government pursue a lease of the port and did not object to the committee’s recommendation.
The decision to lease the Darwin Port for 99 years to a Chinese company, with links to the Chinese Communist Party, has come under intense scrutiny since 2015, with some foreign policy experts suggesting the deal compromised Australia’s national security and was not in the national interest, given the Port of Darwin’s strategic geographic location.
It was also revealed that before heading to Shenzhen last October, Mr Gunner told a reception of Chinese nationals that the 99-year lease of the Darwin Port to Chinese-owned Landbridge was “a very positive investment for the future of our country”.
Mr Mills said Mr Gunner’s actions and comments were serious and needed to be explained.
“Do not forget the now Chief Minister and Opposition leader were on the parliamentary committee to recommend the 99-year lease of the Darwin Port to the Giles Government,” Mr Mills said. “No objection nor dissenting report was issued by Michael Gunner to Parliament.
“This, combined with the recent actions of his mentor Premier Dan Andrews in Victoria adds greater seriousness to the [recent] revelations.”