But as China-Australia relations have soured, Victoria has come under increasing pressure from the Morrison Coalition government to walk away from the memorandum of understanding it signed last year and not to proceed with a new “roadmap agreement” that was due to be concluded in March but has been postponed indefinitely in the midst of the pandemic.
But the Prime Minister’s state Liberal colleagues, who have pledged to rip up the agreement if they are elected in 2022, are determined to keep the issue in the state political debate and have been encouraged by their robo-poll of almost 7000 voters in seven Labor-held state seats.
Disapproval of the BRI deal was highest in the marginal seats of Bass and Bayswater, which was won by Labor on a knife-edge margin of less than 0.5 per cent in the 2018 state election, with more than 70 per cent of respondents in both electorates saying they disapproved of the agreements.
Support for the Belt and Road deal was weak in all seven seats, with Box Hill, the electorate with the largest concentration of Chinese-Australian voters, showing the highest level of approval at just 17.5 per cent in favour, compared to 65 per cent against.
The overall rate of disapproval across the seven electorates, with Bendigo East, Hawthorn, Melton and Frankston also surveyed, was 65 per cent.
Mr O’Brien said he was confident that the community shared his concerns about the Belt and Road deals, flagging he intended to make the agreements an issue when the state votes in 2022.
“Victorians clearly agree that the dodgy Belt and Road deal Andrews signed with the Chinese communist government is simply not in Victoria’s interests,” the state Opposition Leader said.
“Victorians will have a clear choice at the next state election, a Michael O’Brien-led Liberal National government will put jobs first and tear up this one-sided deal.”
A Labor government spokesperson dismissed the Liberal push as a “political game”.
“The government remains focused on the fight against the global pandemic and saving lives. If others wish to be distracted by political games that is a matter for them,” they said.
Monash University political scientist Nick Economou said any campaign against Belt and Road would have to tread a fine line to avoid offending the Chinese-Australian community.
But the academic said the political fallout from the COVID-19 crisis currently gripping the state was likely to dwarf Belt and Road as a problem for his re-election effort.
“If this thing drags on into next year, then I reckon Dan Andrews is in a bit of trouble,” Dr Economou said.
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Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age