A national security review of a Chinese-owned company’s lease of Darwin Port will remain secret, after the Defense Department refused a Freedom of Information request for its findings.
- In 2015, the NT government leased the port to Landbridge for 99 years in a $506 million deal
- Last year, the Coalition asked Defense to assess national security implications of the lease
- The findings were never publicly released, and Labor has now commissioned its own review
Instead, a series of “talking points” given to the former Coalition government have been released, shedding light on the range of questions it expected to face, and how they should be answered.
Chinese-owned company Landbridge signed a 99-year lease for the strategically important asset in 2015, prompting security concerns about the $500 million arrangement.
In May last year — amid escalating tensions with the Chinese government — the then defense minister Peter Dutton confirmed the National Security Committee of Cabinet had tasked his providing new security advice, and department assessing the implications of the controversial lease.
Seven months later, in late December, media reports suggested Defense had identified no sufficient concerns to revoke the lease.
However, the review was never publicly released.
The ABC sought access to the review following the election of the Labor government in May this year.
But Defense has refused to release 10 documents that fell within the scope of the request, including two “risk assessments” conducted in 2021 and a “presentation” prepared in February this year.
Defense said the material was exempt because it had been created for cabinet.
It said it had consulted with the Department of Prime Minister and cabinet, which supported its decision.
AUKUS impact included in ‘talking points’
While the review was not released, Defense agreed to provide three other documents, including “Whole of Government Talking Points”, which were prepared in January this year.
The talking points included a series of potential questions that might come from journalists, including:
- Will the government act on Defense advice that the Landbridge lease is not a security threat and conclude the review?
- Is the lease of the Port of Darwin a national security threat?
- Who is leading the review? Which agencies are involved in the Port of Darwin review?
- Will government publicly announce the review’s outcomes? If so, when will this occur?
- Has government engaged with any external stakeholders on the review (international partners, NT government, Landbridge)?
- Will the AUKUS security partnership have any impact on Landbridge’s lease of the Port of Darwin?
Government members were advised to make no comments due to the national security implications of the review process, other than to say:
- Defense and other agencies had been engaged to provide advice on the Darwin Port
- The review process was ongoing and no decision had yet been made about the lease
- The review included the departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Home Affairs and the national intelligence community
- The AUKUS partnership and Landbridge’s lease of the Darwin Port were unrelated.
Findings of separate port review to be made public, Albanese says
The talking points also noted that then prime minister Scott Morrison had previously stated in April 2021 that he would “act accordingly” if he received advice from Defense or security agencies that “changed their view about the national security implications of any piece of critical infrastructure” .
The FOI documents show updated talking points were requested by Mr Dutton’s office in March this year.
An additional response was then included to say: “Information relating to the review into the Port of Darwin is classified, and a matter that is still in process”.
Today, Mr Albanese said he would publicly release the findings of his government’s separate review into the lease.
“People would be aware that it was leased out to a company connected very directly with the government of the People’s Republic of China,” he said.
“At the time that happened, we opposed it, I was the shadow [infrastructure] minister at the time. And we were concerned about that, and we expressed our opposition.
“I have asked for advice and when we receive it, we of course will make it public.”
The port deal became a flashpoint during this year’s federal election campaign, when Labor leader Anthony Albanese blasted Mr Morrison for not trying to block the NT government from leasing the facility in 2015 when he was the Treasurer.
Following Labor’s election victory, Mr Albanese confirmed in June that his government had commissioned the new review of the Darwin Port lease.