Thursday, 1 Jun 2023

If Andrews is proud of his China trip, why so little transparency?

When then-prime minister Tony Abbott was asked in November 2014 by his German counterpart, Angela Merkel, to explain the drivers of Australia’s China policy, he answered “fear and greed”.

At that point Xi Jinping had led China for just two years and Daniel Andrews was two weeks away from the election that made him premier. In the years since, Xi and Andrews have each grown in political stature, dwarfing their rivals on the very different stages of China and Victoria.

Xi’s increasingly assertive approach to foreign policy led to relations between Beijing and Canberra tilting noticeably to the fear side of Abbott’s formula. Trade and diplomatic relations reached a nadir during the Morrison government, when key Australian exports were put in a deep freeze.

Since Labor under Anthony Albanese returned to office, there has been a noticeable thaw, though the formal launch of the recent AUKUS defence agreement means relations with our largest two-way trading partner remain delicately poised.

This weekend’s news that Andrews was bound for China on a four-day trip has put him at the centre of this minefield, with opposition figures at state and federal level warning that the Premier needs to “stay in his lane” and avoid “secret deals”. He has responded by pointing to the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for the visit as another step towards repairing relations.

Ever since Gough Whitlam went to the People’s Republic as federal opposition leader in 1971, Australian leaders making such a journey have been under intense scrutiny over what they might say and how their actions might be interpreted here and by our allies abroad.

At a time when Canada, Britain and the United States are all embroiled in debates over Chinese influence, Andrews cannot afford to be dismissive of questions around Victoria’s stance. While he may be right to say that it is not a premier’s place to discuss the plight of the Uyghurs with Chinese officials, it is to be hoped that the recent confusion over Spring Street’s approach to the use of the TikTok app is not part of a pattern at a time when clarity of communication is needed.

China is also Victoria’s largest trading partner, and even the state opposition was keen not to sound an anti-business note. But when shadow trade minister David Southwick talked about the need for transparency, he hit upon a problem that is of the premier’s own making.

Closely held decision-making that at times has left the public service, parliament and even government departments and cabinet colleagues outside looking in has been a trademark feature of successive Andrews governments’ dominance.

Taking this approach into dealings with China led to one of the Victorian government’s few significant reversals, when in 2021 prime minister Scott Morrison moved to scrap a deal by Andrews to make the state part of Beijing’s global Belt and Road Initiative on infrastructure.

That agreement was reached with much fanfare, but it was left to the then employment and small business minister, Jaala Pulford, to account for its demise. Had consultation been wider to begin with, such a misadventure might have been avoided.

This time around, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been kept in the loop, whereas in October 2019 it learnt of the “framework” agreement with Beijing through the media. Still the fact that neither relevant ministers nor media are accompanying Andrews raises once again questions not so much about the wisdom of the trip itself as about the manner in which it will be conducted.

We believe that the premier should always do his best to ensure journalists accompany him on such trips. Andrews’ remarks that his China tour would not be “picture-friendly” miss an important point: quite aside from the possibility of photo opportunities, scoops or gotcha moments, at a time when Beijing has excluded foreign correspondents for a number of years, the premier would be sending a signal of the importance Victorians, and by extension Australians, attach to real scrutiny of government and its actions.

After nearly a decade in power, that would be an important sign that Andrews is still listening and learning too.

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