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Port of Darwin defence review ‘naive’ to spying threat

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The controversial 99-year-lease of the port to the Chinese company, Landbridge, has been cleared by a national security committee of cabinet review. The federal review of the $506m lease did not make a recommendation for a government intervention on national security grounds. The Australian reported the Defence Department submission did not give the government justification to liquidate the Chinese holding over the asset. Defence’s position was any decision would be diplomatically challenging.Charles Sturt University professor Clive Hamilton said Beijing would “go berserk” if there were any changes to the lease but said Australia should not back down in protecting its defence assets. The author of book ‘Silent Invasion, China’s influence in Australia’ said the latest review doubled down on the 2015 Defence advice over the port lease.Mr Hamilton said the security approval of the lease was “naive” and “extremely puzzling”, as it would give easy access for spying operations on Darwin’s defence assets. “The Americans would be mystified as to why the Australian government has no problem with a Chinese company owning the port,” he said. Mr Hamilton said China sceptics had been “vindicated” as Australia “woke up” to the threat of foreign interference. He said the government had the power to cancel the lease, with other Chinese companies blocked from owning other major assets. “If the Port of Darwin is not critical infrastructure, I don’t know what is,” he said. Mr Hamilton said the latest defence approval would not silence those voicing security concerns, with the issue likely to flare up for as long as the Chinese company held the lease. Chief Minister Michael Gunner said he acknowledged the federal review into the port lease. “While we believe the port should have never been sold our view has always been that if the Commonwealth wants to spend more than $500 million in the Territory, they should invest in things that would generate new jobs rather than just send a lot of cash overseas,” Mr Gunner said. The federal government is still reviewing the matter, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison previously said action would only be taken if there was advice from the Defence Department or security agencies.Federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese said Labor had opposed the sale of the national security asset in 2015, but did not go as far as to call for the lease to be overturned. “I believe, should have stayed in public hands,” Mr Albanese said. Senate Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong said the opposition was seeking a full briefing on the findings, particularly asking whether defence partners and allies contributed to the cabinet review.EARLIER: THE controversial 99-year-lease of the Port of Darwin has cleared national security checks following a defence review.The Australian has reported a national security committee of cabinet review of the $506 million lease to the Chinese company, Landbridge, did not raise national security grounds sufficient enough to recommend a government intervention.The cabinet committee was established in March to investigate if a Chinese owned port posed an “unacceptable national security risk” and if the Commonwealth should investigate bringing it back into Australian hands.It is understood the national security committee was given no formal recommendation from the Defence Department for a national security intervention.The national security committee has taken no action over the port lease.While the federal government is still reviewing the matter, the Defence Department position was that any decision to overturn the port lease would be politically challenging.Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously said action would only be taken if there was advice from the Defence Department or our ­security agencies over the critical piece of infrastructure.Defence Minister Peter Dutton pushed for the review amid talks of taking a strong stance against China.Following the Port lease proposal, the government has proposed the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018 to identify future national security risks for critical assets.Before authorising a request to directly intervene, the Home ­Affairs Minister Karen Andrews would need to obtain the agreement of both the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister.Landbridge has previously refuted the security risks posed by the lease, and said the debate was scaring off investors and derailing its plans to invest $155 million over the next 20 years.Chief Minister Michael Gunner has also repeatedly said he would not buy back the Port of Darwin even if he had the money to do so.



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