As Education Minister Dan Tehan recently demonstrated, some in the Morrison government are itching to get back to political business as usual and attack the Victorian Labor government. The latter’s collaboration with the Beijing regime over its notorious “Belt and Road” initiative seemed to furnish a good opportunity for that.
Except, when it comes to China, no one’s hands are clean. Especially not those of a government that once upon a time pandered almost obsessively to Beijing.
The government has never liked Andrews’ signing up to the “BRI”, having itself declined to sign up to what Malcolm Turnbull correctly characterised as more slogan than content.
After US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo foolishly weighed in on the weekend to declare Australia might be “cut off” from Five Eyes intelligence sharing if Victoria’s participation involved telecommunications (geez Mike, who would spy on Indonesian trade negotiators to help US firms?), government spirits must have been lifted. That encouraged Morrison to suggest that Victoria had exceeded its jurisdiction on the matter.
Unfortunately for the government — and its News Corp allies — Washington’s man in Canberra, Arthur Culvahouse, had to clean up Pompeo’s mess yesterday afternoon, saying “we are not aware that Victoria has engaged in any concrete projects under BRI, let alone projects impinging on telecommunications networks, which we understand are a federal matter”.
Except, there’s a lingering sense that the Andrews government really does have a blind spot about China. It was State Treasurer Tim Pallas who stirred the issue up by launching an unprovoked attack on the federal government’s handling of relations with China in the wake of China’s decision to impose anti-dumping tariffs on barley (Victoria is a barley producer, but significantly smaller than Western Australia).
Andrews signed the BRI deal with China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the body behind the regime’s horrific “social credit” system designed to control first businesses, then individuals in an all-encompassing mass surveillance program. As Beijing plots anew to crush dissent in Hong Kong and threatens to boycott Australian products, the best thing Andrews could do would be to ditch the agreement.
Perhaps it’s something in the DNA of state Labor parties. NSW Labor, which pioneered the extensive tapping of Chinese political donors in the 2000s and produced Bob Carr and Sam Dastyari, continues to harbour in its ranks Beijing apologist Shaoquett Moselmane.
But the federal Coalition isn’t exactly in a strong position to criticise Victoria over China.
It was the Abbott government — in which Morrison was immigration minister — that signed Australia up to a free trade agreement with Beijing that delivered a few wins for some agricultural producers in exchange for allowing Chinese and Australian firms to bring in temporary Chinese workers with no labour market testing.
Objections from unions and Labor about the lack of protections for local workers were dismissed by Murdoch hacks like Greg Sheridan as “disgraceful” and “xenophobic”. Tony Abbott also played the xenophobia card, which would prove particularly ironic given his later, desperate targeting of Muslims in the dying days of his prime ministership.
Giving firms free rein to bring in Chinese workers for temporary contracts goes much further than any commitments in the wildly overblown but wholly nebulous Victoria-China agreement. So too will the accession of China to the Government Procurement Agreement, which will enable Chinese firms to compete for government procurement contracts in Australia.
Then there was the ill-fated attempt by the Turnbull government, of which Morrison was a senior minister, to sign an extradition treaty with the Beijing regime. As it turned out, even Turnbull’s own backbench had problems with the idea of agreeing to send people back to a regime with a 99.9% conviction rate and the death penalty.
As with the receipt of donations from Chinese donors, and the post-political employment of former politicians, neither Labor nor the Coalition are in a strong position to criticise the other over China.