Labor in Victoria has been accused of “selling out” to China and “parroting foreign propaganda” after its criticism of the Morrison government’s handling of China in recent weeks.
The strong criticism comes after the state’s treasurer Tim Pallas said Australia had “vilified” China by pursuing an independent coronavirus inquiry.
He also blamed the Morrison government for triggering tariffs on up to $1 billion of Australian exports.
“I think I’ve been pretty clear that I’m not a big fan of the way the federal government have managed the relationship with China more generally,” he said yesterday.
“I think there are occasions when we do need to assert our independence, and I made it clear when I was asked should there be an inquiry into the pandemic, I took the view, yes, there should be, but I don’t think in the sense that we should be vilifying any particular nation.
“Every country will have to stand to account, their leadership will have to stand to account with how they reacted to the challenges that coronavirus actually presented to our respective economies and the welfare of our citizens.”
His comments have raised concern about the ties between the Chinese Communist Party and the ALP in Victoria, the Andrews government refused to cancel its agreements with the Chinese government.
Dubbed the Belt and Road Initiative, the cash is part of a program to spread Chinese influence across the world.
In Victoria the money will be used to boost the local economy, with the state government saying the infrastructure network is crucial to rebuilding after the coronavirus crisis.
However, this combined with Mr Pallas’ comments defending China have been seized upon by critics.
Nationals Senator Matt Canavan went as far as to accuse the state government of “selling out” to China on national television this morning.
“It looks like (Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews) has sold out a lot more than just a few infrastructure projects by signing up to this belt and road initiative,” he told the Today show.
“He’s apparently signed over and put up for sale Victoria’s integrity and independence.”
Another Liberal Senator James Paterson accused Mr Pallas of “parroting foreign propaganda” and undermining Australia’s position on China.
“They sadly have form parroting foreign propaganda,” he told The Australian.
“It would be nice if, for a change, they took Australia’s side in a dispute.”
Criticism over the Belt and Road influence has also come from within Labor, with Victorian Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade References Committee, saying state governments “have no constitutional responsibility for foreign affairs and trade” and it should be left to the federal government.
“The Victorian government should not have entered into an agreement with the Chinese government on the Belt and Road Initiative – it is bad policy and bad optics,” Senator Kitching told The Age.
“And I think if people are going to play the blame game, we should blame the wrongdoer, and not the victim.”
When Mr Pallas was asked whether he saw China’s tariffs as retaliation for Australia’s calls for a COVID-19 inquiry, he said: “I can’t hazard to speculate what goes on in the minds of leaders of other countries.
“All I can say is I don’t suppose it would come as a surprise to anybody that this was the consequences of the way that the federal government have conducted themselves.”
He said Australia should “take China as a genuine and important trading partner.”
“We have to deal with them with respect, and we have to be prepared, I think, to recognise that our systems and governments are very, very different,” he said.
“But if we start from a position of respect, if we also start position assignment something quite traumatic has happened in the world economy and in the world population, they are owed an explanation from every government about what they did and how they conducted themselves, and that includes China, but it also includes many other countries as well.”
An independent review into the coronavirus was passed at the World Health Assembly overnight.
Led by the European Union and co-sponsored by more than 130 World Health Organisation member states, the motion passed late last night.
In a joint statement, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and Health Minister Greg Hunt said the Australian government welcomed the adoption of the “landmark resolution”.