Former trade minister Andrew Robb, who has been criticised for taking a job with Darwin Port owners Landbridge, led a delegation of Australian government officials to Beijing to convince them of the benefits of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature strategic “One Belt One Road” policy last week.
Mr Robb has been accused of possibly breaching ministerial standards by Labor and the Greens for becoming an economic adviser with Chinese company Landbridge so soon after retiring from politics.
Landbridge’s Darwin Port interests and the One Belt One Road policy are intertwined.
Landbridge head Ye Cheng has previously said the company’s investment in the Northern Territory port helped serve the Chinese strategic and foreign policy goal, also known as the “Maritime Silk Road”, enthusiastically touted by Chinese leaders as a way to connect China with Europe via Central Asia via massive Chinese investment in new infrastructure projects.
Landbridge head Ye Cheng, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew Robb in Beijing in April. Landbridge
Sceptics say the policy it is an attempt by Beijing to create a strategic bloc to counter the influence of the United States.
Mr Xi has called for the Australian government’s Northern Development Strategy to be included in the initiative, which the Chinese government say is worth billions.
Mr Robb helped launch and is on the advisory board of the organisation that arranged last week’s China trip – the Australia China One Belt One Road Initiative – in May when he was still Trade Envoy, along with former Victorian Labor premier John Brumby.
The statement of ministerial standards says ministers cannot lobby or advocate on behalf of private enterprises with the government for 18 months after they step down “on any matters on which they have had official dealings as minister”.
Mr Robb’s Landbridge appointment was announced by the company on September 2, six months after he stepped down as trade minister. He was then a Trade Envoy until the election on July 2.
Mr Robb led a delegation of officials and business people to China last week. Xinhua
Labor and the Greens have suggested Mr Robb may have breached ministerial standards if he was advocating on behalf of Landbridge to the government.
The opposition has also questioned whether he may be taking personal advantage of privileged information he had access to as a minister.
“Malcolm Turnbull needs to make absolutely, absolutely clear how he has set about ensuring that Mr Robb doesn’t use sensitive information gathered while he was a minister of the Crown, in order to benefit himself and his client,” Labor’s assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh said.
Mr Robb was approached for comment but did not respond before deadline.
The United States was “stunned” that Australia allowed Landbridge, with high-level government links, to take out a 99-year lease for the Port of Darwin last October.
Furore over the lease saw Treasurer Scott Morrison beef up the expertise on the Foreign Investment Review Board and extend its remit to cover more sales by state and territory governments. But Defence insisted it had no security concerns about the lease.
The delegation led by Mr Robb included Austrade, Infrastructure Australia, Victorian government officials, representatives from the Business Council of Australia, ANZ, CBA, King & Wood, Mallesons, Minter Ellison, NAB, BHP Billiton, Norman Disney & Young, Orica, Worley Parsons and SMEC.
Chinese media reported that the Australian delegation agreed to co-operate further on integrating Australia into the One Belt One Road scheme.
The Chinese official charged with the Western expansion of the One Belt One Road policy, Ou Xiaoli, who comes under Chinese government’s central economic planning ministry and under the Chinese State Council, has endorsed the organisation.
When talking up foreign companies providing key investment in infrastructure last year, Mr Robb name-dropped Landbridge.
Members of the defence community, some of whom opposed the lease of the Darwin Port, have said Mr Robb’s appointment appeared “cosy”.
Mr Turnbull met Landbridge’s Mr Ye with Mr Robb in Beijing in April when he was invited to attend a China-Australia CEO roundtable.
Some companies in Australia have already embraced the One Belt One Road policy. In May, a new Chinese-Australian venture set up a triangular shipping route from Rizhao in China (where Landbridge is also based), to Brisbane, Sydney, Bell Bay, Melbourne, Fremantle and return.
Mr Robb has previously said the organisation was about ensuring Australia got a slice of the One Belt One Road investment action.
“We are the first delegation of commercial operators [to visit China for One Belt One Road]. We need more investment from Australian companies not just in China but right across Asia,” he said.
“The idea behind the delegation is to identify the big companies involved in OBOR and then build a relationship with them,” he told The Australian Financial Review.
source: Australian Financial Review