Daniel Andrews’s Department of Premier and Cabinet has refused access to details of crucial national security advice it received before signing up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  Documents obtained by the Victorian opposition under Freedom of Information laws show emails were exchanged between the Andrews government and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade just months before the deal in October 2018.  The substantive content of the emails has been blacked out, with Mr Andrews’s department claiming its publication would “prejudice relations between Victoria and the commonwealth”.

Victoria is the only Australian jurisdiction to join the BRI by signing an MOU in 2018.  Canberra sees the scheme as a vehicle for Chinese regional and global expansion.  The four-page MOU said Victoria would work with China to promote infrastructure, trade and finance, while acknowledging the state was “welcoming and supportive” of the BRI and would promote “the Silk Road spirit”.  A Melbourne-based organisation, the Australia-China Belt & Road Initiative, persuaded Mr Andrews to ink the deal.  They hired former federal Liberal minister Andrew Robb and federal Labour minister Lindsay Tanner to help sell its message.  Its founder and CEO is former Chinese journalist Jean Dong.

Its website says: “This organisation will engage business leaders from China and Australia with a purpose of articulating the relevance of the Belt & Road strategy to Australian industries and identifying practical opportunities for expanded trade and investment.”  Before defying federal government security advice and signing up to the BRI, Mr Andrews spoke enthusiastically about closer business ties between China and Victoria, saying: “There’s an energy in Victoria-China relations that’s not been there in the past, there’s a real sense of the opportunities of this relationship, a complex, multilayered relationship, one based not just on transactions, but one about trust … a true partnership.

“It’s such a competitive market, so many parts of our region and world are vying for an increased share of Chinese investment and influence over Chinese policymaking.  Whether it be in construction, design or professional services, we have a unique perspective, a wealth of knowledge and a hoard of experience to lend.”  The Andrews government has continually refused to confirm whether proper security or risk assessments were undertaken ahead of the deal being struck.  In an email dated June 8, 2018, to DFAT’s China Economic and Trade Section, a senior adviser in Mr Andrews’s department states that a colleague has been in verbal contact “regarding a draft Belt and Road MOU”.

“Please find a marked-up version, which reflects our feedback,” they write.  “Look forward to hearing your thoughts.”  A DPC “East Asia and Latin America manager” followed up on June 12: “Thanks (redacted) for your help on this.  My executive director is keen to land this ASAP and is under some time pressure from further up.  Do you have a sense of when you might be able to come back to us with a view.  This is a high priority for Victoria.  Apologies for being so pushy.”  The Andrews government said all FOI requests were managed in accordance with relevant legislation.  “We don’t comment on security matters,” a spokeswoman said.

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