In another attempt to discredit him, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is being criticised for involvement with China's Belt and Road Initiative, writes John Wren.
OVER THE LAST MONTH or so, I’ve covered the rise and rise of Victoria’s Labor Premier Daniel Andrews. Prime Minister Scott Morrison unwittingly gave him a platform to shine via the pandemic’s National Cabinet, and shine he has. Andrews rose to the occasion and as the longest-serving premier in the cabinet and the premier of Australia’s second-largest and fastest-growing state, he emerged as the de facto national leader in the leadership vacuum Morrison created. Andrews's clear communication style, a focus on doing the right thing rather than the popular thing saw him emerge as someone to be listened to and followed.
This, of course, has been seen as a direct threat to the Liberal Party. At the Victorian state level, the opposition mouthpieces have been left to utter ridiculous irrelevancies about fruit bats and golf courses, further diminishing themselves. The narcissistic Morrison has also been perturbed that the spotlight was no longer on him. There have been many calls for Andrews to move into the federal arena.
This is no direct threat to Morrison — by the time Andrews made the transition (if he chose to), Morrison would be long gone from the scene – but he is potentially a threat to a future Federal Liberal Government and, as such, over the last two weeks there has been a coordinated effort to discredit Andrews.
No doubt Morrison is behind it, but like the cunning school bully who sits in the back of the class goading others to do his dirty work, Morrison has been very careful to not make any public comments regarding Andrews. He has left that up to his subordinates and his affiliate Murdoch, Stokes and Costello media empires. But try to bring Andrews down they have.
Andrews has swatted most of it away with his typical aplomb and this has just served to inflame the anti-Andrews rhetoric further. Murdoch’s Sky News After Dark crew have been accusing Andrews of treason and called for the governor to remove him. The whole situation is crazy.
But what travesty have these mindless Morrison minions chosen to attack Daniel Andrews over? Bizarrely, it has been Victoria’s memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Government on its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). First off, the MOU is completely open and transparent and downloadable in its entirety by anyone from the Victorian Government website. As an MOU, it is a non-binding agreement, not a contract. MOUs are usually the forerunner to a binding contract. It simply sets out an agreed set of principles whereby Chinese entities can tender on infrastructure projects within the state of Victoria. No more, no less.
Why is it a bizarre thing to target Andrews over?
First off, the MOU had its origins with the Victorian Government’s massive trade delegations to China that commenced under former Liberal Premier Ted Baillieu. Negotiations continued under his successor, Liberal Premier Denis Naphthine and were only concluded by Andrews. The BRI MOU is arguably a Liberal Party initiative, not a Labor Party one at all. Current Federal Liberal MP, the controversial Chinese-born Gladys Liu, was actually an advisor to Baillieu when the interactions with China commenced.
Even more oddly, the Federal Coalition Government signed its own BRI MOU with China in 2018. Unlike the Victorian agreement though, the terms and conditions have been kept wholly confidential, which begs the question — what has the Government signed the whole country up to?
The hypocrisy is gobsmacking, to say the least.
But let’s explore this further. This is not a defence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. There is no doubt that the BRI is used by China as debt-trap diplomacy with poor nations. To summarise this tactic — the Chinese Government builds a substantial infrastructure project for that nation, say a port container handling facility or an airport. That effectively puts that government in debt to China. That debt then gives the Chinese strategic leverage within that country. They can even take control of the nation entirely.
It’s a ploy that many wealthy nations have used over weaker ones for millennia. Australia itself has practised debt trap diplomacy with Nauru, Vanuatu and PNG at various times in our history. Look at poor Nauru — a small, weak nation so utterly compromised by its debt to Australia that it has debased itself by turning itself into a concentration camp for Australia’s asylum seekers.
To suggest that a wealthy state like Victoria, however, will somehow be suckered into a debt trap with China is laughable. It simply is not going to happen.
But again, I ask, why did Morrison choose Victoria’s BRI MOU as his hill to die on? Two reasons: like one of his mentors, former PM John Howard, Morrison recognises that there is a deep vein of racist, anti-Chinese sentiment that runs very shallowly below the surface of Australian culture. It dates back to Australia’s gold rush days and bubbles away below the surface ready to be tapped on demand when political needs dictate. Both major parties have tapped it over the years, but the Coalition has done so almost exclusively over the last couple of decades. By associating Andrews with China, he knows he will get a willing audience.
Secondly, it’s the old “reds under the beds” anti-Communist rhetoric of Sir Robert Menzies. It is notable that Murdoch’s minions and Coalition politicians always refer to the “Chinese Communist Government” when they relate it to Andrews, never just the “Chinese Government”. Imagine if we referred to every country’s government by its dominant political party. We would have the “American Republican Government” rather than the “U.S. Government”. The fact that they constantly refer to the Chinese Government this way in relation to Andrews infers he is a totalitarian Communist. Utter rubbish, of course, although the same coterie of Right-wing extremists has also painted Andrews as authoritarian over his excellent handling of Victoria’s pandemic response.
Only the poorly-educated and feeble-minded are fooled by any of this. They self-identify on the myriad of nutty comments on Sky News’s Facebook excerpts and others. To read these comments is to feel one’s own brain cells dying. Which brings us back to the nefarious activities of Murdoch, but that’s a topic for another day.
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