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No Port in Storm

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The federal Coalition government’s Australia’s Foreign Relations bill puts a Darwin Port review on the table.

Well it should, if you read the fine print. But curiously, the government says that it won’t.

“Infrastructure” is explicitly mentioned 21 times in the bill’s explanatory memorandum.

It also states very plainly that, under the act, a contravening “State/Territory entity would be prohibited from commencing anticipated construction projects, engaging subcontractors, distributing funding or giving financial effect to the arrangement, amongst other things.”

And if you read his own press release announcing it, the Prime Minster said that under the act “the Foreign Minister will have the power to review any existing and prospective arrangements between state and territory governments and all foreign governments.”

The Darwin Port lease falls under any reasonable interpretation of the bill.

But contrary to these facts, when pressed on this very question the government tried to deflect and spin its way out of a tight corner of its own making.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the port lease was excluded because commercial agreements between corporations, as she framed the Darwin deal, were exempt.

All the government rhetoric and media reporting on this bill were around Victoria’s Premier Dan Andrews and the 2019 Framework Agreement on the Belt and Road Agreement.

But when it comes to an agreement between the then-CLP Territory government and Chinese-owned Landbridge on this federal government’s watch, it won’t hear a bar of it.

For the PM, Victoria’s MOU is the biggest threat to a consistent Australian foreign policy.

The idea that the 2015 lease of the Darwin Port for 99 years was a straightforward “commercial” agreement was widely panned at the time of the deal’s signing.

When it comes to our nation’s critical infrastructure for economic or military purposes, the port of our northern capital and forward operating base that is Darwin, is one of the most critical.

At the time, as Defence Minister, Marise Payne and then Treasurer Scott Morrison both rejected growing public and expert concerns.

Morrison blamed the FIRB Act, saying he didn’t have authority to vet state governments. It was someone else’s fault, even though his government later got FIRB powers to review the deal.

Now that he has the powers to review the lease, Morrison’s views have changed: it’s not that he can’t do anything, he just doesn’t see Darwin Port as on par with Victoria’s MOU.

This is despite the fact that Morrison’s own backbench is now lobbying him to review the Darwin Port lease.

George Christensen, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, other Coalition MPs and Bob Katter, as well as Labor, have urged the government to avoid double standards.

I have been consistent since 2015 in saying that the port should never have left Australian hands.

The Federal Labor Party has consistently urged the government since then to review it. Bill Shorten called for a Foreign Investment Review Board screening, which was rejected.

This week, Anthony Albanese, who opposed the Darwin port lease as shadow minister in 2015, called for the government to stop picking and choosing what foreign deals to review.

Today, as in 2015, the federal Coalition government is refusing to come clean on its own decision to approve the Darwin Port lease.

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Image Credit Claudine Van Massenhove/Shutterstock.com