Tuesday, 24 November 2015
Questions without Notice
Port of Darwin
My question is to the Minister for Defence, Senator Payne. I refer to comments by the Minister for Foreign Affairs about the lease of the Port of Darwin to Landbridge, a Chinese company with reported links to the People's Liberation Army. The Foreign Minister has said that she and you discussed the issue with her US counterpart at the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations in Boston last month. Can the minister confirm that she raised the issue with the US Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, on 13 October?
I thank Senator Conroy for the question. I can confirm, as Senator Conroy would know—and I do not know whether or not the briefing which was offered has been received, and Senator Conroy, you might nod either way, no, thank you very much—that there have been quite extensive discussions with the United States, in the first instance, with the Northern Territory government, who had a number of discussions with the United States rotational liaison office about the long-term lease of the commercial Port of Darwin. The Northern Territory government's plan to attract private sector investment in the commercial Port of Darwin itself was a public issue during the second half of 2014 and in 2015, which included both the consideration of the issue in the Northern Territory parliament and the passing of the legislation that underpinned the privatisation process. In terms of the formal aspects of the AUSMIN meeting itself, the timing of that period was that Defence and we learned of the government's awarding of the lease of the commercial Port of Darwin to Landbridge a few hours before the announcement by the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory on 13 October, bearing in mind that we were on the East Coast of the United States at the time. The lease of the commercial Port of Darwin was then discussed by the Secretary of the Department of Defence, Mr Richardson, and the US Deputy Secretary of Defense in a meeting in Washington, face to face, in a personal briefing on 15 October.
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, when asked at Senate estimates a week after the AUSMIN discussions if Defence had consulted the United States about the lease, defence secretary Dennis Richardson said: 'No, we did not consult the United States.' Minister, how do you reconcile Mr Richardson's statement with your statements in answer to the last question?
I can restate what I said, but I began by saying that, because it was the Northern Territory government's proposal, there was a number of discussions with the United States rotational liaison officer about the long-term lease of the commercial port of Darwin. I also referred to the public engagement on that matter, including public reporting in mainstream media and the NT News. I indicated that, because of the timing, the Secretary of Defence raised and briefed the US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Mr Bob Work, in Washington, face-to-face. I do not think there is anything to reconcile.
I again repeat that Mr Richardson said a week after AUSMIN, the date on which you claim he briefed the American officials, that we did not consult the United States. Further, he went on to say that 'we did not see a need to'. Given that President Obama has rebuked the Prime Minister for failing to inform the United States about the lease, can you again reconcile why Mr Richardson informed Senate estimates twice that it was not raised, when you are now insisting in this chamber that it was?
I reject Senator Conroy's characterisation of any discussions between the President and the Prime Minister on this matter. What I said very clearly was that after the announcement was made by the Northern Territory government Mr Richardson then met with the US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Mr Bob Work, in Washington and advised him of the announcement at that point. I think the point of difference is that you have understood me to say 'consulted' when I said 'advised'. That is the point I stand by, and so would Mr Richardson.