MEDIA – ABC Radio Darwin – Mornings – Transcript – Port of Darwin lease
DARWIN – 28 April 2021
JOLENE LAVERTY, HOST: The Port of Darwin has become a topic of national conversation over this past week. The Federal Government used its new foreign veto laws for the first time and dismissed Victoria’s belt and road agreements with China. Of course, Chinese company Landbridge holds the 99-year lease for Port Darwin. So should the same law – even could the same law be used to quash it?
This is what former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told us on ABC Radio Darwin yesterday:
AUDIO –KEVIN RUDD: “Well, I’d like to see them publicly – this is the Federal Government – produce a cost-benefit analysis in national security terms, as would justify the retention of existing lease arrangements so that the Northern Territory public, the Darwin public, and the Australian public can have a basis for analysing what decisions should now be taken.”
LAVERTY: And I read a text earlier from Vicky who said, “this conversation with Dr John Coyne was excellent”. So here’s a little bit of what he had to say:
AUDIO – DR JOHN COYNE: “Well, we have to understand about the belt and road initiative change when it came to Victoria, is that legislation talks about direct government-to-government arrangements and treaties and contracts and MOUs. What we’re talking about in the Port of Darwin is very much an agreement between the Northern Territory Government and a private entity. So that’s very, very different. So it doesn’t necessarily fall in the scope of the legislation that we used was used in Victoria.”
LAVERTY: Yesterday, we heard of a top Australian security official warning that the drums of war are beating. So should we be having a closer look at the Port of Darwin deal? Luke Gosling is the Member for Darwin and Palmerston in the seat of Solomon. Good morning, Mr Gosling.
LUKE GOSLING, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR SOLOMON: Good morning, Jo.
LAVERTY: What do you think should happen in regards to Landbridge’s 99-year lease of Darwin Port?
GOSLING: Yeah, I’ve been very consistent, Jo, back from 2015, when the lease was granted, I said that it was wrong. It was a stupid decision. 99 years is such a long time. And what we’ve seen in the last five years, as security commentators have said this morning with you, is that the world moves quickly and we are in uncertain times. But regardless of who leased the port for almost a century, that quick amount of funds that was quickly spent was really a pittance for giving away what is the strategic northern port of our nation.
So I’ve consistently said since 2015 that our ports should be in Australian hands. And Scott Morrison had the opportunity to make the Darwin Port deal part of this current legislation, but he voted against that with One Nation. So they teamed up to make sure that it was only to have a go at Victoria and perhaps some other states for their deals, but not to look at the LNP and CLP decision to lease our strategic port for a century.
LAVERTY: Dr John Coyne, again from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, pointed out that the agreement that the Northern Territory Government has with Landbridge can’t be quashed under these particular new laws because the laws state it’s a government-to-government arrangement, whereas that’s not the case in this particular agreement. It’s a government to private company arrangement.
But there might be other ways in which we could get out of the lease should we wish to. As part of that deal, Landbridge committed an initial $35m of new growth investment in an expenditure over the first five years of the lease. So that’s a clause in the agreement. Has that commitment been met?
GOSLING: No, it hasn’t, Jo. And we know that the hotel’s not going ahead. So Landbridge obviously had a plan. I guess the point I’m trying to make, Jo, is this is not necessarily about Landbridge per se. It’s about the Darwin Port being in Australian hands, that’s what should happen here. And if there’s a way that Australia can get majority ownership and therefore control of the port, perhaps that or some of the other mechanisms that John was talking about is a way through this.
But I think former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is exactly on the money. Maybe the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was the Treasurer when the deal was done – so he was part of allowing the CLP to make that deal – maybe he can describe to the people of Darwin, the people of the Territory, and the people in Australia, how this is in Australia’s national interest not to have control of our northern port.
LAVERTY: Well, as Dr Coyne pointed out, and you’ve actually just referenced this comment as well, that things have changed significantly since that lease was signed. So it was a very different environment when it was signed, very low risk. And in fact, the Chief Minister still describes it as a low risk agreement. So maybe we just, you know, we’re getting a little bit overexcited about something that is of very little importance in the scheme of things?
GOSLING: No, the Port of Darwin is an important strategic asset. We have our allies and partner nations coming here, and it is just an issue of sovereignty. For example, an Australian company can’t go and buy a Chinese port because the Chinese want their ports under their control. It’s an issue of sovereignty. It’s totally uncontroversial for me to say, as I have been for six or seven years now, that the Darwin Port should be in Australian hands. It shouldn’t have been sold off. In 2015 I wasn’t a federal member at that point, but I rang around Defence, I rang around to people I knew at the port, because I was concerned about what might happen with the ownership of the port. No one expected, including US allies and security experts, that what would transpire did transpire.
Now that we are in the position we’re in, the Prime Minister’s got the legislation by which he can act to bring it back under Australian control. And he should do that. And you should talk to it while he’s here in Darwin today. It’s been almost two years since the Prime Minister’s been in Darwin. I’ve been inviting him for all that time. He’s finally arriving, you know, to explain what’s happening with the vaccine rollout. And he needs to explain what the future is for our strategic northern port look like.
ADAM STEER, HOST: Have you spoken to anyone operating at East Arm? Like, say, the stevedores?
GOSLING: Yeah, of course.
STEER: And what have they said about how well that area is being run since it was taken over by Landbridge?
GOSLING: Oh, I haven’t heard any complaints about the way that the port is being run by Landbridge.
STEER: So it’s being run well, you’d say?
GOSLING: This is a much higher-level strategic issue than that, Adam. It’s not about what is happening today. It’s about us having control of what happens in our own harbour. Now, I’m running a mobile office this morning down in Stuart Park, three people mentioned to me the Darwin Port, how stupid a decision it was for it to go outside of Australian control, and how it should be back should be brought back under Australian control.
Look, as I said, it is not a controversial thing to say. And there might be a method by which we can just acquire the control, the majority ownership of the port. And perhaps that is a way that Landbridge can continue to operate the port, but not have a majority shareholding in what happens. So that is a control issue for a sovereign port. There may be another way that this can be done, but I think as Kevin Rudd said, the Federal Government who were complicit in this sale need to explain to the Australian people how they can use this legislation in relation to other jurisdictions, but then make sure that the legislation cannot be used where they’ve got this decision around their necks of leasing off for a century the sovereign strategic port of Darwin.
LAVERTY: Senator Sam McMahon has asked to look at the fine print, the details of the lease, just to see whether or not there are any little loopholes there that need attention. So this is a story that will continue to develop. Thank you so much for your time today, Mr Gosling. That is Luke Gosling, who is the Member for Solomon.