The lease of the Darwin Port to Chinese interests needs to be reviewed under proposed federal laws that aim to crack down on state and territory deals signed with China that fail to protect Australia’s national interests, Labor leader Anthony Albanese says.
Mr Albanese’s comments directly contradict NT Labor Chief Minister Michael Gunner who has repeatedly defended the $506 million deal that was signed under the previous CLP government in 2015 with Chinese-owned Landbridge Group.
“It is beyond my comprehension how you could look at this and not look at the Port of Darwin,” Mr Albanese said on the ABC Insiders program on Sunday. “That was something I opposed as shadow infrastructure minister at the time.
“It’s hard to think of an Australian infrastructure asset that is more vital to our national interest than the Port of Darwin.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week announced that all state and territory arrangements with China and other foreign countries would be reviewed with the aim of killing deals that are not considered to adhere to Australia’s foreign policy, through proposed legislation yet to be tabled in Parliament. That would include Victoria’s arrangement with Beijing on the Belt and Road Initiative.
While Mr Gunner’s mysterious deals with China are expected to be assessed by the Foreign Minister Marise Payne, the 99-year port lease to Landbridge Group will not face any further scrutiny because it is a commercial arrangement between a government and a private company.
Asked if he believes the deal should be overturned, Mr Albanese said the Darwin Port “should never have been sold”.
“And it should never have been not in Australian hands,” he said.
“We’ll have that debate (about whether the port should be re-nationalised) no doubt as part of this, but the idea that the Commonwealth can pick and choose what it looks at; if we’re going to look at this, and that’s a reasonable thing to do, then let’s have a look at it.”
‘Our gift to Australia’: Gunner on China relationship
Mr Gunner has shot down previous calls to review the deal, and has openly supported the Belt and Road Initiative while signing his own deals in the region, including an as yet fully undisclosed multi-million dollar deal with Donghai Airlines in 2018 and a secret deal with Shenzhen officials last October that has never been made public.
In 2018, he told a Chinese business function celebrating One Belt One Road, that the Northern Territory’s relationship with China was “our gift to Australia”.
“In many ways, I believe our relationship with China is our gift to Australia,” Mr Gunner said in the July 2018 speech.
“The Northern Territory and China are showing the rest of Australia how Chinese investment can work in Australia and how it can work well.
“Think Landbridge and its long-term lease over the Port of Darwin.”
At a 2019 reception at the Chinese Embassy in Darwin to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Mr Gunner told the crowd the port deal was a “win-win” for Australia and for the “Chinese government”.
“I think it’s a very positive investment for the future of our country and the port is the bridge between supply and demand,” he said. “We need the port to grow to suit the things that we’re gonna be exporting.
“It’s both an Australian government win and a Chinese government win. So I think it’s a positive sign of what you can achieve if you work together as a commercial port doing commercial things.”
Proposed legislation would also assess current deals with China by local councils and universities
The proposed legislation by the Morrison Government would give the Commonwealth veto power over current arrangements with foreign countries and future deals if they are determined not to be in keeping with Australia’s foreign policy.
The legislation would also cover “sister cities” deals signed by the Darwin Council and other commercial arrangements, as well as university agreements such as Charles Darwin University’s deal with the Confucius Institute.
The legislation will also make it mandatory for state and territory governments to publicly register all agreements signed with foreign countries such as China.
Mr Gunner has repeatedly refused to disclose the nature of an agreement he signed in Shenzhen, China last October, but under the proposed laws, it would need to be publicly declared.