A Labor MP has become the first federal politician to call for the controversial Chinese lease on Darwin Port to be scrapped, so it can be placed back into Australian control.
South Australian backbencher Nick Champion is leading the charge to “nationalise” the strategic northern access point, but the ABC has spoken to others across the political divide who share his concerns.
“I think there was not enough consideration of the national interest in that particular privatisation of this port,” Mr Champion told the ABC.
In 2015, the Northern Territory government announced that Chinese company Landbridge had been awarded a 99-year lease of Darwin port in a $500 million deal.
Concerns over Beijing’s steady military build-up in the Indo-Pacific region have since prompted renewed concerns about the foreign ownership of Australia’s northern-most port.
At top-level talks in Sydney over the weekend, the Australian Government again joined the United States in expressing alarm over reports China is moving to establish a new military base in a Cambodian port.
Mr Champion, who is the deputy chair of Federal Parliament’s foreign affairs, defence and trade committee, believes the Commonwealth should consider buying back Darwin Port.
“It’s a very important port because we have significant defence facilities in the Northern Territory and that’s the part of the world I guess we have to pay a great deal of attention to,” he said.
“We should look pretty clearly at making sure that that port is in government hands, and it’s for those reasons I think it should be nationalised.”
The ABC has spoken to several MPs on both sides of politics who privately share concerns about Darwin Port’s foreign ownership. But, unlike Mr Champion, they are not yet prepared to go public.
“His concerns are spot on, but right now Beijing holds some pretty powerful economic levers against Australia, so any move that could annoy the Chinese Government is pretty dangerous,” one Coalition MP told the ABC.
Mr Champion has, however, rejected suggestions that moving to nationalise Darwin Port would unnecessarily anger Australia’s largest trading partner.
This should be an assertion of our national sovereignty, of our national interest and I think if it’s put in those terms, then companies, and others, can make their own understandings about why we’ve done it,” he said.</p> <p>
“Given that we’re entering into really the most uncertain strategic environment since the 1930s that we should be prudent, that we should be rational and the best way to be prudent and rational is to bring it into government hands”.
Neil James from the Australia Defence Association has welcomed the renewed focus on the foreign ownership of Darwin Port.
“It just goes to show how sensible people grasp the sovereignty and security implications,” he said.
“The idea of nationalising it is a good one — but it may be better to spend the money on purpose-designed facilities elsewhere.”
The ABC revealed in June that secret talks had begun on a new port facility just outside Darwin, which could eventually help US Marines operate more readily in the Indo-Pacific, but the Defence Department has consistently denied involvement in any such proposal.