SPEECH – Government must review “fiasco” of Darwin Port lease

CANBERRA – 18 March 2021

Australia is an island nation rich in resources and ingenuity.

We’re a trading nation.

Trade has been the cornerstone of our national prosperity.

Since the early 1980s, those on this side of the House have been in favour of free trade.

But trade is inherently political; it’s naïve to pretend that it’s not.

We’ve experienced this first-hand over the past year. This has taught us a painful but important lesson.

An over-reliance on trade, either on the product being traded, or the end destination for our products, exposes us to political and market forces out of our control.

But diversification brings us two things:

Greater stability in the face of these forces, and it encourages innovation and growth at home.

Given how immediately important diversification is, the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth is very timely.

So I welcome this report, which recognises the urgent need for Australia to begin diversifying.

It’s a substantial piece of work, and I commend the committee for its efforts.

The committee consulted widely, taking evidence from Federal Government department and agencies, the NT Government, unions, industry groups, think tanks, scholars, and the private sector generally.

The 21 recommendations of the report are sensible and constructive.

The first recommendation of this report calls on the Government to:

“… develop and release a plan for trade diversification, which includes:

a focus on maintaining relationships with existing close trading partners as well as expanding trade with other countries;

a plan for diversifying Australia’s range of export goods and services;

and enhanced diplomatic capability to identify and secure new supply chains and markets.”

I completely agree with this recommendation.

The Government needs a clear and public strategy to drive trade diversification.

But unfortunately, this Government doesn’t have a plan to do that.

Even after our economy, our producers and our businesses have been battered by a global pandemic and a trade war, there is still no plan to make us stronger and more prosperous.

But even before this disruption began, we needed to address diversification.

The Government has had almost eight years to get this right.

But they haven’t even taken the first step.

But while the Government may have dropped the ball on this, others in this building have been working hard on this very question.  

Deputy Speaker, I had the privilege of chairing the Labor Party’s Indo-Pacific Taskforce.

It was launched on June 17, 2019.

We handed down our final report a few months ago, in December.

As I wrote in my introduction to the report:

“Economic diversification can be more than a money-maker, which is how the Coalition has tended to treat trade.

“It was a nation-builder under Labor Governments, whose visionary Hawke-Keating reforms created our modern open trading economy.

“Diversification is a national economic and strategic imperative on the same scale as this challenge, but it’s a fifty-year project under a Government with a 280-character long vision statement.

“Labor alone can transition our trade portfolio to build a wealthier, safer, more resilient Australia.”

Our taskforce took evidence from 88 different groups and stakeholders, among them scholars, government officials, and representatives of diplomatic delegations.

We came up with 13 considered, wide-ranging and robust recommendations.

I’m pleased to note that many of our recommendations are in complete agreement with those of the fine report by the Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth that we are discussing today.

These recommendations are underpinning the important work we are undertaking on our side to prepare for Government.

Labor will be ready to act swiftly on trade diversification when we form government because we have done the hard work.

I’m proud to have played a role in that process. 

Deputy Speaker, before I come to discuss a major component of the report of the Joint Standing Committee, I will comment upon one other element that caught my attention.

Recommendation three recognises the importance of having a full understanding of export markets to the success of any trade agenda.

The committee recommended that:

“… the Australian Government commit to building the Asia-capability of Australian exporters and investors, including: Greater development and/or utilisation of programs to boost Asia-literacy of businesses and training for jobs of the future”.

Asia literacy is not a new topic, but it is an incredibly important topic.

As a nation, we cannot hope to survive and thrive in our region without being able to communicate with and appreciate the perspective of our friends and neighbours.

Australia’s deficit in Asia literacy has held back many of our businesses from really thriving and taking up opportunities.

We can also see a distinct lack of Asia literacy in many of the decisions of this Government.

Successive Labor governments have funded and boosted Asia literacy, from primary schools to universities.

Successive Coalition governments have gutted these commitments.

I myself, Deputy Speaker, have pursued the study of Bahasa Indonesia, which has given me a greater insight into the culture and philosophies of one of our most important partners.

I whole heartedly endorse recommendation three and call on the government to act on it.

Deputy Speaker, the part of this report that gained the most publicity is the discussion on the leasing of the Port of Darwin to the Landbridge Group in October 2015.

The facts of this matter are largely in the public domain, but I’ll repeat the three key points of this fiasco:

  1. The lease is for 99 years
  2. The deal was done by the former Country-Liberal Government of the NT, with the full support of the federal government, and
  3. Landbridge Group is known to have extensive links to the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese Communist Party.

This is an issue which I feel strongly about, Deputy Speaker.

The Port is in my electorate of Solomon.

Like many, I have long held deep concerns about the deal, and the possible national security implications.

It seems the Joint Standing Committee shared my concerns.

Recommendation 19 calls on the government to:

“… provide a report on whether the 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin to a foreign company will be subject to the Australia’s Foreign Relations Act 2020 and if so, consider taking measures to have the Port of Darwin brought back under Australian ownership if current arrangements are not deemed to be in the national interest.

“Further, the Committee recommends that other ports and strategic infrastructure owned by, or leased to, foreign corporations also be reviewed under the Act.”

My four Labor colleagues on the Joint-Standing Committee – the Deputy Chair, the member for Cooper; the member for Fraser; Senator Ayers; and Senator Ciccone – jointly attached a statement to the report.

It outlines the Government’s full responsibility and failure to act on the lease of the Port of Darwin.

It concludes:

“This avoidable fiasco was entirely of the making of the Liberal and National Parties.

“Their poor decision-making, incompetent governance and pursuit of short-term monetary gain has compromised Australia’s long-term strategic security.”

It goes on:

“Despite the Australian Foreign Relations Act 2020, the Government has refused to explain whether the lease of the Port of Darwin is consistent with Australia’s foreign policy.

“The government must explain what action the Foreign Minister may or may not take under the Act in relation to the 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company”.

The ball is now in the Government’s court.

The judgement of the Joint Committee is clear.

The Government must act now to review the unacceptable lease arrangement for the Port of Darwin.

I call on the Government to step up and present a plan to address the concerns.

Deputy Speaker, as a nation Australia faces many challenges.

And we’ll face more over the coming decades.

But with plans and reports like this one, we’ll be better equipped to face any challenge.

I commend the report, and congratulate the committee for its work.

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ENDS