Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews refused to heed warnings from top intelligence and security officials in regards to their concern about the controversial Belt and Road Deal with China.
The state made a deal with China under the country’s Belt and Road Initiative, a scheme that sees the communist superpower invest in huge infrastructure projects around the world, in October 2018.
It has since emerged that both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and several national security chiefs made multiple attempts to brief Mr Andrews on their concerns on China, The Australian reports.
The prime minister sent Mr Andrews a letter in June saying the federal government had concerns over the deal, and the Victorian premier failed to attend a classified briefing on July 31.
Premier Andrews said he made the agreement to increase Chinese participation in Victorian building projects, manufacturing and trade in order to boost jobs.
But the non-legally binding sign-on to China’s Belt and Road initiative has prompted concerns about foreign influence.
The federal government claims the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Signals Directorate and the Office of National Intelligence director made many offers to the Andrews government in the past month.
The briefings are believed to have been on the threat assessment on China, espionage and foreign interference as well as cyber threats.
They also included security assessments of deals with China but not the specific Victorian Belt and Road deal.
Mr Andrews had been offered briefings multiple times about the issue since July, reports said, but claims he was unaware there had been concerns until recently.
The Victorian premier stood by the controversial deal during his coronavirus press conference on Thursday and insists the deal is about boosting jobs and investment.
Speaking about Mr Morrison’s comments, the premier quipped: ‘If the prime minister has time to be doing those things, that’s fine for him.
‘I don’t – I am exclusively focused on fighting this virus and then making sure we have the strongest economy that we can possibly have on the other side of this.’
The prime minister wants to stop states and territories signing deals with foreign powers that go against Australia’s foreign policy and damage the national interest.
A proposed new law announced on Wednesday could see the deal scrapped.
The coalition is pursuing legislation to review and scrap state, territory, local council and public university deals with other nations.
It would also allow the foreign minister to nip major agreements in the bud after states and territories notify an intention to negotiate with another country.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton described the Belt and Road Initiative as ‘a propaganda initiative from China’ that could lead to an ‘enormous amount of foreign interference’.
He said: ‘Victoria needs to explain why it is the only state in the country that has entered into this agreement.’
Federal Liberal MP Andrew Hastie told Daily Mail Australia that Mr Andrews had ‘gone off the reservation by conducting his own foreign policy with China’.
It comes amid increasing political and economic tensions between Australia and China.
Beijing and Canberra have been at loggerheads after Australia led global calls for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.
Soon afterwards, China slapped an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley, suspended beef imports and told students and tourists not to travel Down Under in an apparent attempt to damage the Australian economy.
On Tuesday Treasurer Josh Frydenberg blocked a $600million bid by Chinese company Mengniu Dairy to buy Aussie drinks company Lion, citing national security concerns.
On Wednesday Wang Xining, deputy head of mission at the Chinese embassy in Canberra, said Chinese people felt deeply betrayed by Mr Morrison’s call for independent scientists to enter China and investigate coronavirus.
‘All of a sudden, there was this shocking proposal from Australia, supposed to be a good friend of China,’ he said.
‘It is approximately identical to Julius Caesar on his final day when he saw Brutus approaching him and said et tu, Brute?’
Minister Wang admitted the virus was ‘first identified’ in China but said ‘we should leave the work to scientists’ to find out where patient zero came from.