The controversial decision to lease the Darwin Port to a Chinese-owned company that is now under review by the Department of Defence has caused the Northern Territory “reputational harm”, Chief Minister Michael Gunner said, implicating his head public servant Jodie Ryan in the hot-button issue.
Mr Gunner told reporters yesterday that the 2015 decision to lease the Darwin Port to Landbridge Group made by a committee of public servants had “brought a lot of attention to the Northern Territory” on the international stage.
“I think that has brought a lot of attention to the Northern Territory and we’re constantly in this debate about the port, and how you measure that’s difficult to put a number on,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s led to any, any decisions against the Territory, but we do have potential reputational harm as a result of that decision.”
Mr Gunner has repeatedly laid the blame for the port lease decision on the previous CLP government, however a committee of public servants and “experts” – including current head public servant Jodie Ryan while she was under-treasurer – recommended Landbridge as the preferred bidder in 2015, over Australian and European bidders.
That decision has been widely criticised by national security experts as short-sighted, “dumb” and conflicting with the country’s national interests.
The committee also consisted of then-director of major projects Ann Tan; Tourism NT chief executive Alastair Shields and then-head public servant Gary Barnes.
The panel was rounded out with “Captain John” Watkinson, who sat on the Darwin Port Corporation’s board of directors, and former Queensland premier Campbell Newman’s right-hand man Jon Grayson.
Ms Ryan told the ABC in 2019 that the long-term risks of leasing the port to a Chinese-owned company were “considered as part of the assessment” and that “substantial due diligence was undertaken and involved independent financial and legal advisers”.
“If Landbridge are no longer able to run the port it returns to NT government control,” she said.
That assertion has been called into question by lawyers familiar with the contract, who have said there is nothing in the contract specifically stating it would revert back to NT control if Landbridge were to file for bankruptcy.
The deal was signed off on by the Adam Giles-led CLP government in November 2015.
Ms Ryan was promoted to the role of chief executive of the Department of Chief Minister following Mr Gunner’s 2016 election victory.
Landbridge chosen over Australian, European bidders for Port deal
It was revealed earlier this week that the Department of Defence is reviewing the 99-year lease of the port to Chinese-owned Landbridge, a company with links to the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese Communist Party, with speculation increasing that the Federal Government may move to terminate the $506 million deal on national security grounds.
It has previously been reported that Landbridge was one of three finalists to win the lease of the port. The NT Government has repeatedly refused to release all the final proponents’ offers, citing commercial-in-confidence reasons.
It’s understood two other bids were near the same price point, but it remains unclear why Ms Ryan’s committee recommended going with Landbridge over the other bidders.
Mr Gunner was also yesterday asked about his previous comments supporting China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative, but did not say definitively if he is supportive of the program that is part of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s foreign policy ambitions that has seen massive infrastructure investment in other countries to establish a trade network.
Mr Gunner sat on a parliamentary select committee in 2015 that recommended selling the Darwin Port on the grounds that it needed upgrades that the NT Government could not afford.
Opposition Leader Lia Finocchiaro, then a CLP backbencher, also sat on that committee that unanimously recommended the sale of the port to a private owner, although the select committee did not specifically recommend leasing the port to Landbridge and was not involved in the other committee that Ms Ryan sat on that ultimately made that decision.
Ms Ryan also attracted controversy in 2017, when it was revealed she was part of another board that recommended a near-bankrupt water bottling company called NT Beverages be given more than $10 million in taxpayer cash through the now defunct Infrastructure Development Fund.
In January, Ms Ryan was given the Australian Public Service Medal for “outstanding public service to the community of the Northern Territory through a range of roles”.
Ms Ryan and Mr Gunner did not respond to the NT Independent’s questions.