The committee’s chair, Liberal senator Eric Abetz, said scrutinising the port lease “might well be a helpful case study for the committee to consider”. “Whether this occurs is ultimately a decision for the committee,” Senator Abetz said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne has said the proposed laws would not capture commercial transactions such as the Darwin port sale in 2015 because the new power was about “government-to-government” agreements.
However, Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, a member of the Senate committee, said the Darwin port stands as “the foremost litmus test for the Australian government to demonstrate its bona fides on issues of national sovereignty and national security”.
“The Foreign Relations legislation will lack public credibility unless it includes provisions to enable taking back the Port of Darwin,” she said.
After the port sale, the federal government tightened up foreign investment review rules – requiring a sign-off on any proposal from a state or territory wanting to sell critical infrastructure like ports and airports to a private company.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has said it is “beyond [his] comprehension” the government was introducing the foreign veto power legislation without looking at the Darwin port sale.
The federal government would be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation if it decided to tear up the agreement between the Northern Territory and Landbridge. It could do this by forcing a sale or renationalising the port.
Labor senator Kimberley Kitching said she had asked the Parliamentary Budget Office to provide costings on buying out the remainder of the lease, but the estimate was uncertain because the lease agreement has never been made public.
“There does need to be greater transparency when dealing with strategic assets, whether this be a port or a telecommunications network,” Senator Kitching said. “As a country we need to speak to the rest of the world with one voice, and with certainty.”
Australian and foreign navies are still using the port, which remains an ongoing concern for senior figures in Australian security agencies and the Department of Defence.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute defence program director Michael Shoebridge said the Australian and US navies were unlikely to move sensitive military equipment through the port, saying it was unacceptable that the country had to create “workarounds” for its northernmost port.
Mr Shoebridge said the foreign veto power legislation was already broad enough and should not include transactions such as the Darwin port.
“Rather than needing a law to force divestment, this public and political environment creates the conditions for a solution,” he said.
“Landbridge might come to the corporate conclusion that operating the port, that is the iconic example of failed decision-making on national security, makes less and less sense than it did back in 2015. A commercial sale given the worsening strategic environment starts to look smart.”
The proposed laws would allow the Australian Foreign Affairs Minister to cancel agreements that states, territories, local governments and universities enter into with an overseas government if they contradict Australia’s national interest.
It would likely force Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews to scrap his Belt and Road agreement with the Chinese government, which ties the state to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature initiative to bankroll infrastructure projects around the world.
As currently drafted, the laws will exclude commercial corporations and state-owned enterprises and universities that are not arms of a foreign government such as military universities.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.