A news report by foreign affairs and national security correspondent Anthony Galloway on the decree, ”They can be cancelled’: Commonwealth to review states’ overseas agreements”, prompted a significant response from readers.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was important the federal government was notified of such deals with foreign powers.
“These changes and new laws will ensure that every arrangement done by any Australian government at any level now lines up with how we are working to protect and promote Australia’s national interest,” Morrison said.
“Where any of these agreements undermine how the federal government is protecting and promoting our national interests they can be cancelled.”
There was strong support for the federal government’s action, with “finally” being a common refrain among readers who felt the intervention was necessary and long overdue. Many made the point that foreign policy shouldn’t be a state or local government domain.
Cherry: “It is a surprise it has taken so long to enact these laws. Countries where the political system is more nimble have been quick on their foot to recognise the danger from China’s hegemonistic policies.”
Lex: “Our country is being massively infiltrated by the Chinese Communist Party and urgent action is necessary. While I admire Dan Andrew’s efforts in the difficult job of managing the pandemic, he must be incredibly naive about the intentions and modus operandi of the Chinese regime to allow the notorious Belt & Road program into Victoria. Our university vice-chancellors receive both direct and indirect benefits from kow-towing to the whims and demands of the CCP and are therefore incapable of sound and impartial judgment of what is appropriate in terms of foreign government influence and interference on our tertiary education sector… Federal intervention is necessary to protect Australia’s sovereignty and long-term future.”
YADFs: “Excellent decision, if a little slow.”
fillyboii: “I’m not a Liberal supporter but I agree that foreign policy should be a Canberra issue not a state government issue. Also I’m not against free trade but I do feel we are putting all our eggs in one basket when it comes to China. Asia is not just China there are so many other countries we should do trade agreements with instead. Many countries that have signed trade agreements with China have been very one sided and benefited China rather than the signatory to the deal.”
wandererfromoz: “This move is long overdue – foreign policy/international relations is the sole prerogative of the Federal Government and state/local/private/etc others need to be brought under the one administrative roof on these issues – it is an absurdity this was not done and so the Port of Darwin agreement must be cancelled. And Labor had better back this change to the hilt.”
As with reader wandererfromoz above, for many it was a case of why stop at these deals, highlighting other areas ripe for greater oversight.
The Chisel: “Beijing has many tentacles… We must go all the way to the community level as well. Scrutiny must be applied to all “Chinese and Overseas Chinese Associations” and “China Australia Friendship associations”… These are the localised/social melting pots for Beijing to begin influencing and recruiting the Australian Chinese and Overseas Chinese community. Been going on for decades!”
isthisthereallife: “Can we also do away with the ludicrous sister city deals that local governments love, but only provide opportunities for ratepayers’ money to fund overseas boondoggles for councillors?”
redgecko: “scomo tear up the leases the Chinese have on our port of darwin, and the airport in WA for starters, and then buy back all the land they are sitting on in Australia.”
Responding to redgecko, reader 1961russB asked: “What about the 70% of investment coming from America? that’s ok?”
sporran also replied: “Just the Chinese? Most of our large agribusinesses are now overseas owned. Just about all our food processors are, indeed many have been overseas owned for decades. Our milk processing industry is majority owned by Italian, Japanese, Hong Kong, Kiwi interests… do we exit those owners? … Keep in mind, it doesn’t matter who owns our farms… if it comes to conflict they can’t actually take it with them!”
Ross – Mallabula: “Assets bought by Chinese citizens – it is called trade. Citizens of all kinds of nationalities and ethnicities buy assets – that is called free-trade. Please educate me, however, on the claim that we are being ‘massively infiltrated by the Chinese Communist Party.”
Reading through the comments, Galloway says in his experience the issue of foreign interference usually transcends partisan divides in Australia.
“Most people within Labor and the Coalition – and most politically engaged Australians on the left and right of the political spectrum – agree we need to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic influence and interference,” he says.
He says the Victorian government’s Belt and Road deal with the Chinese government brought this issue into sharp focus.
“Many people feel it undermined the federal government’s policy of countering growing CCP influence in our region, including the issue of China engaging in ‘debt diplomacy’, whereby it loads developing countries up with debt and then wipes it in return for a favour,” Galloway says.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese has indicated in-principle support for Morrison’s intervention but echoed the bewilderment of some that the 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company won’t be examined as part of this current debate.
“I think that it’s hard to think of an Australian infrastructure asset that is more vital to our national interest than the Port of Darwin,” he told the ABC’s Insiders program.
As for Daniel Andrews, he has defended his government’s agreement with the Chinese and denied it undermined national security or federal foreign policy.
“Presumably [Morrison’s] approach will include quite soon a very detailed list of alternative trading arrangements, alternative free trade agreements, alternative markets. I’ll leave that to the PM to announce, but presumably that’s coming and coming pretty quickly,” he said.
It’s a point not lost on readers, who highlighted the likely economic impact of such action.
i-cud-be-wrong, but…: “It is okay to see our PM tells the Australians what CAN’T be done.
But we also look forward to his leadership and to tell us what CAN BE DONE. What’s his alternative growth plan? What’s his alternative export markets? What’s his next free trade agreement? Hope the answer is not just to send Tony Abbott to UK, and to save Australia?”
djc789: “The proposed legislation will ensure the rapid demise of our exports to China, sending dependent export industries broke and increasing unemployment levels at a rapid rate. Time to wake up to the simple fact that if we keep poking the tiger in the eye it will retaliate by walking away from Australian trade full stop. Seems like we are overtly inclined to be the exposed rump of Donald J Trump.”
DMalone: “So how can any country rely on any deal we sign? This is very confusing. The Confucius Institutes are in control of a majority of Chinese language learning in Australia through the unis. How do we replace this? Are we just not going to teach Chinese anymore? I think this is just another dog whistle.”
Other readers highlighted the federal government’s own history in encouraging Chinese investment.
Sheila Martin: “Clearly according to Morrison China can not be trusted. So why does Morrison not rescind ChAFTA and stop all trade with China.”
Steve: “Too late now. Abbott and Morrison spent 8 years inviting them in, selling them assets and selling them technology. After putting all our eggs in the one basket, it is too late to declare we can do without them.”
The timing of the announcement was also questioned by many readers – even those who didn’t object to the Prime Minister’ plans.
Jezz: “I guess this announcement gets Sukkar off the front page.”
Tom: “Interesting that Scotty from Marketing is talking about this at this time. Could it be to direct attention away from the abysmal state of the management of aged care by his government?”
Tim BAN ALL DONORS: “So whilst I agree that we need to do more to protect ourselves from China methinks this comes at a point in time where ScoMo wants a distraction from his other stuff ups.”
Acknowledging these comments, which questioned of timing of Morrison’s announcement, Galloway said “it’s always better to engage in national security reporting on the substance of the issue: are these measures needed? Are they proportionate to the threat, etc?”
Online readers of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age made 54,779 comments on 723 stories in the past week.
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Orietta Guerrera is the Reader Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Brisbane Times and WAToday. She was previously Federal Political Editor for the mastheads.