Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has rebuked the state government of Victoria for signing up to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, saying he was “surprised” it had not been more “cooperative” by consulting the commonwealth first.

Morrison’s remarks, made on the campaign trail, put him at odds with Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who downplayed the significance of the secret memorandum of understanding earlier on Tuesday.

On October 25, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, finalised the MOU with the Chinese ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, making Victoria the first and only Australian state to support President Xi Jinping’s global trade and infrastructure plan.

In response to questions from the Nine Network on November 2, the Victorian government said that it “consulted with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) during the MOU’s drafting process and DFAT have been provided with a copy”.

While DFAT responded that it “became aware in June that Victoria was considering” joining the Belt and Road Initiative, as it is also known, it said the government was not informed the MOU had been signed until October 25, when it was announced.

On Tuesday, Morrison told reporters on the Sunshine Coast that he was “surprised that the Victorian government went into that arrangement without any discussions with the commonwealth government at all or taking … any advice … on what is a matter of international relations”.

“They’re the responsibilities of the commonwealth government and I would’ve hoped the Victorian government would’ve taken a more cooperative approach to that process.

“They know full well our policy on those issues and I thought that was not a very cooperative or helpful way to do things on such issues.”

They know full well our policy on those issues and I thought that was not a very cooperative or helpful way to do things
Scott Morrison

Earlier on Tuesday, Payne told ABC she had not seen the MOU before it was signed and the commonwealth was not advised, explaining it was a “matter for Victoria”.

“We encourage the states and territories to expand opportunities with China” but those practices should reflect the need for “stability, security, prosperity and the usual transparency requirements”, she said.

Payne said it was “not in the least [bit]” embarrassing the commonwealth was not consulted, explaining “the states and territories … make arrangements of this nature, at this level, regularly, with other countries in this region and more broadly”.

“Any treaty level arrangements, of course, are made at the commonwealth level,” she said.

Asked if it was normal practice to keep the MOU secret, Payne refrained from criticism of the Victorian government, explaining it “depends on arrangements between the parties” and it was a matter for the states and territories to decide.

The trade minister, Simon Birmingham, had also reportedly welcomed Victoria’s deal with China despite not having seen the details of the MOU.

“I haven’t discussed the content of it with Victoria but we have been, and are, positive for Australian engagement in BRI, where those projects are sustainable projects that provide clear benefits for the recipients,” he reportedly told The Australian. “If Victoria has seen opportunities to do so consistent with those terms, that’s something we welcome.”

Payne also said the Australian government had noted reports of construction of internment camps for the Uygur minority and had “serious concerns” about the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang province. She said there would be “statements made in the [United Nations] human rights council this week” and she would pursue the matter in discussions “in the appropriate way”.

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