CANBERRA -- A major split on national security has emerged with Shadow Defence Minister Stephen Conroy accusing the Turnbull Government of “completely bungling” the leasing of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese Government linked company.
While at the APEC summit, U.S. President Barack Obama chided Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the decision by the Northern Territory to award a 99 year lease to Landbridge Group, a company with links to the Chinese Government and the People’s Liberation Army.
As Australia’s strong ally and in the middle of regional tensions, Obama wanted a heads up and chipped Turnbull for not getting one, while it took the Australian Strategic Policy Institute to point out national security problems with foreign leasing of the important piece of northern infrastructure.
ASPI’s Executive Director Peter Jennings has described the deal, announced a month ago, as a “deep strategic mistake”.
The Federal Opposition has described the NT Government’s leasing decision as “embarrassing and astonishing”.
“(The NT Infrastructure Minister Peter Chandler) had not done due diligence, didn't know about the links with the PLA. These are basic questions that should have been asked," Conroy told ABC Radio.
“What have seen is a complete and utter bungling by (Treasurer) Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull and the defence community behind the scenes are up in arms.”
From Manila, the Prime Minister Thursday said the Defence Department concluded it did not have any concerns about the sale and downplayed Obama’s concerns.
“It was very well known that the port was being privatised and it was very well known to anyone who thought about it for very long that there would be Chinese interest in it.”
Turnbull also made light of the American exasperation that they heard about the deal in the Wall Street Journal, rather than being forewarned by official Australian briefings, by suggesting the Obama administration get a subscription to the Northern Territory News.
“(I’m) only seeking to encourage the circulation of great Australian newspapers,” he joked.
The decision to award Landbridge Group the Port of Darwin lease was made by the Northern Territory Government, which consulted with Defence Department, defence leaders and ASIO, although in this case it was not required to do so.
All concluded no concerns with the leasing of a commercial port to a Chinese company.
The Prime Minister also said he was satisfied that any national security concerns were dealt with before the lease was approved.
But, Conroy said basic questions do not seem to have been asked.
“The issue is no-one involved in the process appears to have done the basic research to establish whether or not it is true that (there are) very, very strong links between Landbridge and the PLA.” he said.
“There seems to have been a complete failure of process.”
“Australians should concerned a government in there particularly challenging times have bungled a national security issue like this.”
The Shadow Defence Minister said he is concerned about the sale the next major infrastructure asset with strategic value, the TransGrid electricity transmission network in NSW.
He said it has a fibre optic network which services the defence bases and defence data centres.
“These are highly sensitive pieces of national infrastructure and the proper processes must be in place,” he said
“We cannot afford to have a bungled process just because a state government wants to take the highest bidder, without taking into account national security issues.”
The Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison has subsequently proposed reforms to the process for selling state and territory government-owned assets.
"There are some consultations talking place at the moment with states and territories in relation to those matters," he told the ABC.