Aug 31, 2020







SUBJECTS: Port of Darwin 99-year lease; Northern Territory; foreign affairs and Australia’s national interest; Australia’s relationship with China; Northern Territory election.


KATIE WOOLF, HOST: The Federal Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese, joins me on the line now. Good morning.




WOOLF: Albo, the Prime Minister obviously announced these proposed changes. What are your concerns?


ALBANESE: Well, there’s nothing unusual or remarkable about saying that the Federal Government should have responsibility for Australia’s national interest when it comes to foreign policy. But I’m just wondering how fair dinkum it is. If we’re going to have an assessment of international interest in terms of Australian assets in particular, I can’t think of an Australian infrastructure asset that’s more vital to our national interest than the Port of Darwin. Which is why I’m wondering whether the Federal Government, as part of this, will have a re-look at it.


WOOLF: I guess for us here in the Territory, when the Port was leased back in 2015, there was outcry. I honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever taken so many talkback callers as what I did when that was announced. People were really pretty unhappy about that. And I guess at the time, we all thought, ‘I’m a little bit surprised that this hasn’t gone through to the Federal Government as well, to have a bit of a closer look’. Did it seem as strange to you at the time as what it did to a lot of us here in the Territory?


ALBANESE: It sure did. And I raised questions about it at the time as the Shadow Infrastructure Minister. I’d had commissioned, when I was the Minister, a National Ports Strategy. It certainly didn’t include selling any of our major ports to international interests. And Darwin Port, I am very familiar with it. We actually provided some funding for some upgrades at the Port of Darwin prior to the sale when I was the Minister, so I visited it a number of times. It obviously plays a critical role, not just in terms of exports and imports, but in defence as well. There’s an obvious link. It’s our most important northern port. And guess what, with the exception of New Zealand, all of our primary neighbours are to the north, and I would have thought as a strategic asset, I was concerned in general about privatisation, but to essentially sell it to a government-owned entity, or linked entity, that isn’t the Australian Government, I found quite remarkable.


WOOLF: Now I know since 2015, for the majority of us again here in the Territory, the Port seems to be operating as normal. There doesn’t sort of seem to be any real changes. We catch up with the Port very often on the show. And things do seem to be operating as usual. I mean, could this lease actually be overturned?


ALBANESE: Well, of course, the Commonwealth Government has a lot of power to intervene in Australia’s national interest. And the concern here is, this lease goes until the 15th of November 2114. Now, in spite of the fact that we’re all living longer, I doubt whether you and I will be around at that time. And the idea that you make such a long-term decision without having the foresight, or to be Nostradamus, of what the circumstances will be between now and then was, I think, pretty short-sighted, frankly. I think that there was a clear case for the Port not to be leased. And now that the Government has opened up this idea, what’s more important – some university study of some professor doing a joint study with someone in Washington or Beijing or London or Paris, or the lease of the Port of Darwin? So, if we’re going to have a look at these issues of Australia’s national interest being defended, I would have thought this should have been absolutely at the very top of the list.


WOOLF: What do you reckon the reaction from China would be if that lease was overturned?


ALBANESE: Well, that’s a matter for the Government to assess. But it’s the Government that have embarked on this. They made the announcement on Thursday. They did it without any legislation. We haven’t even seen it yet. There’s always a gap between the Government that’s always there for an announcement and a photo-op, but never there for the follow-up. So, we’ll wait and see where this is going. But certainly, it is up to the Government, I think, when it considers this legislation, which is why I’ve said up front, they reckon they’ve got it, I assume it’ll be introduced into the Parliament this week. I thought it was quite unusual for the big splash announcement to come before any legislation had been introduced. But that was a decision for the Government. It’s up to them to explain.


WOOLF: I guess, you know, it seems as though it is fair enough that the Prime Minister’s flexing his muscles on foreign influence over Australian assets, but this is where the Port is, sort of, this really unusual situation or piece of the jigsaw puzzle now because, as you pointed out, it’s obviously a very important strategic asset when we talk about defence and when we talk about our imports and exports. But if there’s not an issue with the Port lease, then you do tend to wonder why there is such a big issue with some of the other different sort of agreements with some of our foreign neighbours.


ALBANESE: Well it is pretty hard to think of another asset that is as important, that could be encompassed by any legislation. I can’t think of any, to be frank. I just can’t. There are various international interests in Australian infrastructure projects and assets. By and large, we have welcomed foreign investment. And foreign investment has served Australia well. And the relationship with our neighbours is an important one. But if the Government is going to reassess on this basis, they really need to explain what assets they think are more important than the lease of the Port of Darwin, as I said, from 2015 to 2114. Its total price of the lease package came to just over half a billion dollars, but that’s over a long period of time. And this is a company, in terms of Landbridge, that is directly associated with the state government of China. So, there is very clearly a direct interest there. And when we look at Northern Australia, one of the things that the National Ports Strategy did was identify our ports in the north, particularly the major ones of Townsville, Darwin and of Broome as strategic assets. And therefore, I was somewhat surprised that when the lease of this port occurred, there was no reference back to the National Ports Strategy that was developed at arm’s length by Infrastructure Australia.


WOOLF: If we are in a situation here, let’s say that the Prime Minister does decide to go and review this lease, I mean, the reality is that it was a deal done, like you’ve pointed out, with Landbridge, a private investor. And obviously, that money went to the Northern Territory Government. How then would it work in terms of, would the Australian Government or would the Territory Government then have to really be footing the bill to take that Port back?


ALBANESE: Well, the National Government would have a national responsibility. This is a national asset. And if we’re going to be looking at our foreign policy, how it interacts with infrastructure projects, how it interacts with engagement with foreign governments in terms of investment here in Australia, or other activities, including research at universities as one of the issues that’s been flagged, then I believe very strongly that the Australian Government would have a responsibility here.


WOOLF: Wow. I’m intrigued to see how it all lands. I can certainly understand the argument that it is so important, that port. As I mentioned, I guess for us here in the Territory, things seem to have been operating quite well with the way in which it’s happening, that commercial arrangement at the moment. But I’m assuming, Albo, that the situation really here is at the moment that our relationship with China is quite strained at this point in time. Well, that’s certainly the observation, I think, from lots of Aussies. And then when you talk about that, and when you talk about the importance of that port when it comes to defence, it seems as though it’s a concern.


ALBANESE: Well, that’s right, Katie. The fact is that the Federal Government has identified this as an issue. I think that in general, the relationship with China is an important one for Australia. They’re an important trading partner. Australia, of course, exports a range, particularly, of our resources to China. And that’s a source of considerable revenue. I think it is of a great deal of concern that it appears that Australian Government ministers can’t pick up the phone and engage. There seems to have been a breakdown in relations between the Australian Government and China. And I’m concerned about that because we’re seeing a range of issues with regard to trade, whether it be barley, whether it be meat, or whether it be more recently in terms of our wine exports as well. We need to, of course, always defend Australia’s national interests and our values, our values as a democracy. There was something that jagged with me last week, when you have the Federal Government making this grand announcement, at the same time, this is the same Federal Government that said, ‘Nothing to see here. No problem. We won’t even look at it’. And of course, it was in the Commonwealth’s power at the time to have a look at this project, at this sale. I would have thought that there was a real case for a port such as this to remain in government hands, whether it be the Territory Government or the Australian Government, because of the nature of the Port, because of the interrelationship between private sector activity and defence when it comes to Australia’s north.


WOOLF: Have you had the opportunity to speak to Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, about it? I know we’re getting a few calls from our listeners at the moment saying that while the Chief Minister was obviously in opposition at the time, he has said publicly that he does support that lease. Have you had much of an opportunity to have a chat about this?


ALBANESE: You’d expect the Chief Minister, and I know Michael Gunner very well, I am very pleased that he was re-elected because I think his Government was very much deserving of re-election as the Chief Minister. But this is an issue that’s been raised by Scott Morrison. And I would expect the Government of the Northern Territory to respect the lease that was there. This is about the Federal Government directly saying that they should have the say in foreign affairs when it comes to investment according to Australia’s national interest and have the right to override state and territory governments. So, this is clearly in Scott Morrison’s corner. I will certainly speak to Michael Gunner about these issues. I have a good relationship with him and with his Government. I spoke to him on the day of the election and wished him well. And I certainly have congratulated him and our Northern Territory people.


Of course, we’re in a campaign here as well to make sure that the Territory still gets two seats in the House of Representatives. I’m pleased that there seems to be some cross-party support. Scott Morrison hasn’t said his view. But I’m pleased that Michael McCormack has come out, as Leader of the National Party, and said that he supports two seats. I think the idea that you’d be reduced to just one would be a real step back for the Territory.


But this lease is about more than one government, one Chief Minister, one Prime Minister. This is a 100-year lease. Quite extraordinary that we could have a discussion about the involvement of the Commonwealth Parliament and not discuss these issues. So, it will be on the table. And it will be front and centre.


WOOLF: Well, Anthony Albanese, the Federal Opposition Leader, lots of other things I could have asked about this morning as well, but there’s not enough time. We might have to get you back on again in the near future.


ALBANESE: Always happy to have a chat. It’s a pity I can’t get up there at the moment.


WOOLF: We’ve got some good weather, mate. You’re missing out.


ALBANESE: You’re rubbing it in. I’m here in Canberra. It’s very cold at the moment in the early mornings. But Darwin’s good any time of the year.


WOOLF: Absolutely. Anthony Albanese, we will talk to you again very soon. Thank you so very much for your time this morning.


ALBANESE: Thanks, Katie.