Victoria commenced in 1851 as a colony of the United Kingdom. On January 1, 1901 it became a state of the Commonwealth of Australia. It did not have a foreign policy in either capacity.
Nor did Australia during its early decades. On September 3, 1939 prime minister Robert Menzies declared war on Nazi Germany. His message was that “Great Britain has declared war upon” Germany and “as a result, Australia is also at war”.
This was an accurate statement. It is not clear precisely when Australia developed a complete independence from Britain. But this occurred on or after the passing of the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act received Royal assent in October 1942.
Over the years since Federation, the powers of the Commonwealth government have increased at the expense of State governments. However, no state has queried the right of the Commonwealth government to determine Australian foreign and defence policies. That has been regarded as a constitutional responsibility of the Commonwealth.
Until this week, that is, when Victoria’s left-wing Labor premier Daniel Andrews appeared to do precisely this. Last Wednesday it was announced that the Victorian government has signed a framework agreement with China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).
This is a manifestation of what China refers to as its Belt-and-Road initiative. It amounts to China interacting with governments in respect to infrastructure, innovation (high-end manufacturing and technology) and ageing along with trade development and market access.
Under the plan, a joint working group will be established to oversee future co-operation which will be chaired by Andrews and NDRC vice-chairman Ning Jizhe. The framework agreement is not legally binding but is regarded by Andrews as an example of the strength of the relationship between the two entities.
It remains to be seen whether the framework agreement between Victoria and China is a good idea that will have a positive outcome. Certainly it has been criticised by Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton who raised two questions: “Why does he [Andrews] believe this is in our national interest; why does he believe it’s in Victoria’s interest?”
At this early stage, the framework agreement is of little consequence. Except for the symbolism involved. In the Victorian government’s media release on Wednesday, three quotes were provided attributable to Andrews. The intent of one was clear. Namely: “We don’t see China as our good customers, we see them as our good friends.”
This can only be read as a criticism of contemporary Australian foreign policy with respect to China in general – and of Prime Minister Scott Morrison in particular. Early last May, just before the May 18 election, Morrison was quoted as saying that the United States was a “friend” while referring to China as a “customer”.
Morrison’s position was a reasonable one. He was running the line developed by former prime minister John Howard – namely that Australia can have a good relationship with both nations without weakening our historical links with the US.
The Prime Minister put it this way, when asked about trade tensions between the US and China: “You don’t have to pick sides; you don’t have to walk away from the relationships that you have.” Again a sensible point. China trades with Australia because it wants to purchase our high quality goods and services at market prices within a legal system that works.
There was no reason for Andrews to sneer at the prime minister’s response. In any event, he would be advised to realise that many nations of the Indo-Pacific region are wary of embracing China. Among others, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and India.
Foreign policy in Australia is the preserve of the Commonwealth government. In particular, that of the prime minister and foreign minister (Marise Payne). Yet, Andrews regarded Beijing as a suitable base from which to criticise the Morrison government’s policy towards China.
If Andrews wants to determine foreign policy from government, there’s always the option of running for a seat in the Commonwealth parliament. It’s impossible to imagine a provincial leader of the Communist Party of China criticising President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy while on an official visit to, say, Canberra.
It’s not as if Andrews is without reason for self-criticism back home. In July, Sky News ran a two-part documentary titled Lawyer X: The Untold Story. Last Monday ABC TV’s Four Corners followed up the story of Lawyer X (Nicola Gobbo) with a program titled Reprehensible Conduct.
It’s the (now) familiar story, which Victoria Police tried to bury, about how it engaged Gobbo to spill the beans on many of the clients she was engaged to defend in her capacity as a defence counsel – thus perverting the course of justice.
Without question, this is one of the greatest scandals in Australian legal history. Certainly Victoria Police were attempting to end the gangland murders in Melbourne which ran from around 1999 to around 2010. But you can’t pervert the law to defend the law.
The matter is currently subject to investigation by the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants headed by the former Queensland chief justice Margaret McMurdo. It is expected that current Victoria Police commissioner Graham Ashton and Simon Overland (one of his predecessors) will give evidence at the royal commission. Both men held senior roles in Victoria Police at the time of what we now know to be the Lawyer X scandal.
And here’s the problem. Overland left the Victoria Police some time ago. However, Ashton currently heads the organisation which is currently under investigation by the royal commission. An extraordinary situation – with which Andrews is apparently content.
Interviewed on Four Corners, Gavin Silbert QC (a former Victorian chief prosecutor) said that those in Victoria Police who knew of the Lawyer X affair “were guilty of terrible breaches of duty and extraordinarily unethical behavior”. Silbert added that he was “absolutely surprised” that Ashton has “lasted so long” and that anyone in the Victoria Police hierarchy who sanctioned the Lawyer X operatives “should have gone” by now.
It would seem that Andrews is more focused on lecturing the Prime Minister on China that commencing the task of reforming Victoria Police.
Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au