Daniel Andrews has defended the nature and timing of his surprise visit to China, just weeks after the federal government signed the AUKUS security pact, and while questions remain about the identities of those the Victorian premier will meet on his seventh official visit to the country.
Andrews leaves for the four-day tour on Monday afternoon, which will make the first leader of an Australian government to visit China since the beginning of the pandemic. The plan to visit was first reported by The Age on Saturday.
Speaking to the media on Sunday, Andrews said he would meet with senior officials from the Jiangsu and Sichuan provinces, and representatives from the government of Beijing, but the full itinerary had not yet been finalised despite the trip being planned for weeks.
Andrews said the main purpose of this visit was to strengthen Victoria’s standing among prospective Chinese students. But Education Minister Natalie Hutchins will not accompany the premier nor will Trade Minister Steve Dimopoulos or any other ministers.
Asked whether his government planned to unveil new trade or infrastructure deals during the visit, Andrews said “lots of things” would be discussed while he was there.
“But it’s not a trip that’s designed to sign deals. It’s about coming out of a one-in-100 year event, which has obviously been difficult for all of us,” he said.
“This partnership has always been important. And arguably it’s more important than ever as we – all of us – seek to reset, rebuild and repair the damage and set our economies and our communities up for an even stronger future.”
Andrews said he had spoken about the trip with Anthony Albanese, and the prime minister was enthusiastic about the premier’s visit.
Andrews’ 2019 announcement of his government’s BRI plan blindsided DFAT, and the Morrison government subsequently quashed the deal under its foreign veto laws.
Shadow foreign minister Simon Birmingham said while every premier was entitled to undertake trade missions, state leaders should “stay in their lanes”.
“Premiers should ensure they are briefed, where appropriate, on national security sensitivities,” Birmingham said.
“They certainly should not be striking secret deals with foreign governments and must fully adhere to the protections the [former] Coalition government implemented that ensure the primacy of the federal government in foreign policy.”
When Andrews was asked on Sunday why he had not invited members of the Australian media to report on the trip, he said: “This is not very picture-friendly.”
“There’s no big events. We’re not doing tours. It’s back-to-back meetings. That’s why we won’t be bringing the media with us. But, I hasten to add, there’s some other trips to other parts of the world [coming up] … and there will be some media contingent [for those visits].”
Victorian deputy Liberal leader David Southwick welcomed the upcoming trade mission, but said the premier’s full itinerary should be made public and the media should have been invited.
“Let’s repair the relationship between China and Australia and Victoria, but let’s do it in a transparent way,” he said.
“I think all Victorians would want to know who Daniel Andrews is meeting. What’s the benefit to Victorians? That needs to be the focus.”
A spokesperson for Albanese said Andrews’ visit was another positive step towards stabilising relations between China and Australia.
“In recent months the prime minister and several ministers have each held constructive discussions with our counterparts,” the spokesperson said.
“In those discussions, we have made clear we seek to co-operate with China where we can, disagree where we must and engage in matters of our national interest. Premier Andrews will bring that same approach.
“We will continue to speak out as necessary on the issues that matter to Australia.”
Andrews said he would not raise the persecution of Uyghur minorities with Chinese officials.
“That would not be something that I’ll raise because they are deeply sensitive matters … and best dealt with by the Australian foreign service. You need to be very careful when you are the leader of a sub-sovereign state.”
He will meet with Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher, on Tuesday.
With Rachel Clun
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