SPEAKING ON A MOTION | JOINT SELECT COMMITTEE

Mr Melhem: Again I have the pleasure of speaking on another motion moved by Mr Davis about—I think it was last sitting week we were talking about more or less the same thing—the anti-China propaganda by Mr Davis, basically trying to keep that issue going, to spread all this stuff about. The truth does not really matter, really! Let us make things up as we go. He is making things up. Let me quote some of the fear stuff Mr Davis said in his contribution. He said, ‘Oh, we’ve got no problem trading with China, but there’s a problem with the MOU about promoting trade’. The first agreement between Victoria and China was done by my good friend a former Premier of Victoria.

Mr Davis: Sir Rupert.

Mr Melhem: It is true. He was the first.

Ms Crozier interjected.

Mr Melhem: An honourable Premier. He did a great job and was very well respected by a lot of Victorians. And he did the first agreement between Victoria and a Chinese province—it is not much different—to promote the relationship. I am again quoting Mr Davis, maybe paraphrasing, but more or less that is the gist of what he was saying: promote the relationship between the state of Victoria and China in relation to trade and cultural things et cetera, et cetera, et cetera—and good on him.

Premier Andrews—which he made no secret about—strengthened the relationship between Victoria and China when we got elected into government in 2014. I recall he said, ‘I’m going to make it my business. I’m going to go to China once a year and my ministers need to work with Chinese officials to make sure we actually strengthen the relationship because they are our biggest trading partner’. So we are happy to trade with them. We are happy to have their business, and they are now happy to have our business.

Since the relationship started between us and China, under the direction of Premier Andrews, the two-way merchandise trade, for example, has come up to about $37 billion a year now, which is an increase of about 60 per cent since 2014. The international education sector, which is our target export, generated $12.6 billion in revenue for Victoria and supported 79 000 jobs. Last year we had more than 87 000 international students from China, an increase of 51 per cent over the past five years, and almost 30 per cent of students in Victoria are Chinese. So we are happy to do the trade and we are happy to accept their business, but I think there is a fair bit of a racism element in that area. There is a fair bit of that.

Now, I get it; you might have a view about a communist party versus a democracy. Well, that is a different debate altogether; I get that. Let me tell you, I would not wish the Communist Party to run this country. I do not like them. But what the system of government should be in China I do not think is any of our damn business. It is the business of the Chinese people. They are the ones to determine it. We do not want the Chinese to determine what sorts of governments we have in Australia, and vice versa. Those opposite talked about some of the major projects and investment and said, ‘John Holland is a Chinese company. If it was an American company, it would be okay’. I have got no issue with the Americans—we have a lot of common cultures and common interests and allies—but these are the Chinese. Well, if they are the enemy, then let us declare China as the enemy. Let us declare China as no longer our partners. We are happy to have them as partners; we are happy for them to buy our iron ore and exports and to do business with them. Let us make our mind up. What relationship do we want to have with China? Do we want to have a partnership and work with them? And it is two-way traffic, I get that. I agree with Mr Davis that any relationship between countries or states or individuals has to be a two-way street. It should never be a one-way relationship. I accept that totally.

We talked about the tariff. I agree there should be no tariff imposed on barley. But I have not heard Mr Davis actually criticising the federal government’s lack of action about addressing this issue. I have not heard it. I stand to be corrected, but has the federal government—your colleagues, your brothers and sisters—gone to the World Trade Organization to take on China to get that lifted? No they have not, have they? Have they, Mr Davis? That is their job. You run away! Mr Davis just left the chamber because he does not like the truth; he does not like the facts. I have not seen him once mentioning what the federal trade minister has done to fix up the tariff issue with China. Yes, he talked about it, he whinged about it, but I have not seen an application to the World Trade Organization to actually take China on. That is what he should have done and that is what we should be doing. There is a process, there is a system in place—and that is what we should be doing. Instead, we want to make political points. People will be listening to this debate and trying to denigrate people of Chinese background and destroy our relationship with China—and the timing is just appalling.

Now I said earlier I totally disagree with, strongly oppose and think we should do everything possible to take on China and the Chinese government in relation to their tariff on barley. We need to do that. If we cannot fix it, let us go to the World Trade Organization and take them on and get that lifted, because there is no justification for it. So let us agree on that.

But then we talk about the memorandum of understanding and the arrangement of Premier Andrews, who is a great leader. He has managed to get the state to a situation where we are the envy of Australia. We are creating jobs better than any other state. We are talking about level crossings. We are talking about infrastructure. I can go on with the list, on and on and on and on. I might come back to that later on. But there is no secrecy about what the MOU and the arrangement in place are. It is not secret. You can google it, actually. You can go on Google, and I said that last time. You can jump on Google and then basically punch in ‘MOU Victoria China’ and bang, you have got the full document.

My understanding is Mr Davis and his colleagues have read the document. What is in the document? One, it is not a legally binding document. It is not a treaty. It is a document basically stating intent—that both parties would like to work together cooperatively to promote employment, job creation, trade and cultural links between two nations or between two provinces or between the state of Victoria and Chinese provinces and Chinese governments. That is what it is. It is not talking about, for example—I would be a bit worried if that was the case—the state government of Victoria basically signing a defence agreement with China or an agreement with this sort of effect. That is not the case.

It is basically no different to when your former Premier did a similar thing by putting together an agreement to promote a healthy relationship between two countries or two states. That is what it is. Let us call it what it is. You find me one thing in that document—I have not got a copy here, but I had a copy of it last week and I read the document; there is nothing in that document—committing Victoria to things which might contradict or undermine our federal system of government or the national interest of our country. Let me tell you, I would be the first one to be standing here attacking my own government if that was the case. Let me tell you—I am saying on the record—that that is not the case. The case is about promoting a healthy relationship.

There was all sorts of talk about 5G. That is not in the space of the state government to do. It is the federal government. And even in some of the news, about there being some grants given to the China group to do some advocacy work, they forgot to mention they have got similar grants from the federal Liberal government. But we do not talk about that. We do not talk about Robb and we do not talk about their side of politics.

I think it is about time to start talking about real stuff. They are saying there is no committee to basically scrutinise what the government is doing, the MOU et cetera. Well, we have got the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee (PAEC). We had the same arguments about the COVID-19 accountability process: ‘How are we going to hold these ministers accountable? How are they going to rule us during COVID-19? We’re going to lose our freedom. They’re going to rob us. They’re going to jail us. They’re going to do all sorts of horrible things to the citizens of Victoria, this Labor government. They’re going to do all these sorts of things’. Well, guess what? If you talk to Victorians, they will say, ‘Thank God we had a Premier like Daniel Andrews, who was prepared to lead from the front, who led from the front along with his cabinet’. And now we have got through or are getting through COVID-19, and he is not just leading Victoria; he actually led nationally. He managed to establish a good relationship with the Prime Minister and other premiers to make sure we got an excellent response to COVID-19.

We had the Parliament, and people were saying, ‘This Parliament will never come back and sit again—never, never, never. It’s not going to happen. The Parliament’s going to be shut down, and we’ll probably come back one day. We won’t be back this year’. We had a sitting in May, and we are now sitting pretty much as normal. And then the accountability—PAEC. We then, or the Premier did, added an additional person to the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee from the crossbench so we could have some non-government people added to it. We did not have to do that, but we did that so we give an opportunity to other members to participate in the process and hold the government and ministers to account in various departments. And that committee met on a regular basis, not just for 2 hours or 3 hours, Tuesday to Thursday, like the house was sitting, and there have been a lot of good things carried out during that process. Members were able to ask questions; they were able to quiz ministers and department heads in relation to how we handled the COVID-19. Well, it is the same thing: nothing is stopping you on PAEC to go and ask the responsible minister to come and talk about the MOU. There is nothing stopping you doing that.

But there is a thing you really need to appreciate about this place. It is called the David Davis method of madness. As you have seen today, he will not even give a go to his other colleagues to actually have a go at speaking on something. He wants to speak on everything. And he wants a committee to basically sit for the rest of the Parliament and report every few months. He did exactly the same thing in the last Parliament when he was the chair of the Environment and Planning Committee with the rate capping, because that was part of his portfolio. So he said, ‘Okay, we’re going to have a resolution. We’re going to have six-monthly reporting on rate capping’, and he turned the committee to become basically his shadow portfolio-type resource so he could use that every six months—‘There’s a report’. And then in the last 12 months he moved on to a different portfolio. He got bored with that. He was still the chair of the committee, but he got bored with that; he was no longer interested in it. So we really did not do much reporting on rate capping in the last 12 months of that Parliament because he lost interest.

It is the same thing here: ‘Let’s establish a committee, a joint committee. It’ll be the David Davis committee’. Basically, with that issue, he is fair dinkum about that. He is not happy with debating the issue. We debated it a second time in this place. PAEC I think, unless I am wrong, could be the appropriate vehicle to call in the appropriate minister, maybe the Premier, and I am sure the government will be more than happy, because transparency is very important. They will come in and explain it. Because the government will never run away from the arrangement we have got in place with China in relation to the Belt and Road Initiative.

They are trying to paint a picture that Australia and Victoria—and I said that last time—are like a Third World country where we are going to go with handcuffs to China and say, ‘Give us $5 billion to do that project and we’re not able to pay in five years time’. And that is what happens. Look, there is some concern. I get that in some other countries there is an allegation that the Chinese may say, ‘Look, in five years time if you can’t make the repayment on the loan, don’t worry about it. Give us some political favours here and there and so forth and we’ll maybe rape you and pillage you and so forth. We will forgive you for the $5 billion’. Guys, grow up. We live in Australia. We are a First World country. If we borrow money, we pay it back. We are not such a Third World country where we cannot meet our obligation to repay our loans.

But let me tell you this: if I can get an interest rate on a loan for 0.5 per cent from person X versus I have to pay 5 per cent from person Y, where would I borrow the money from? I mean, it is simple common sense. And sure enough, it is another argument altogether about the fact that you do not want to borrow something you cannot repay. I get that. And Mr Davis talked about how he welcomed investment, even Chinese investment and Chinese trade, but for some reason he has got this fixation about why the MOU exists. And by the way, that MOU was signed a long time ago, in 2018. And it has been around for a long time.

The federal government do not want to do Belt and Road. Well, good on them; that is fine. But call it for what it is: it is simply a memorandum of understanding which states the intent of both parties to cooperate, to work together, basically, for mutual benefit. Yes, the Chinese want to have some benefit out of it. Of course they do. Why else would you do any agreement between two parties, especially a commercial arrangement? It has to be two-way traffic, and both sides need to benefit. But also there is a benefit for Victoria, which is jobs.

Are we giving our sovereignty away? Of course not. I know some commentators would say we are, but I would like you to prove it. I would like you to actually tell me where in the document—one, it is not a legally binding document; two, where is it in the document? It is basically being said that we are giving the farm away. Alternatively, let us say that is not in the document. Let us get an example or a real case where that thing actually happened. No-one actually has come up yet with an example where as a result of the MOU any of that has occurred—not in writing, not in the document and not in real life. So simply because it is convenient the coalition raise that issue.

COVID-19 started in China. COVID-19 swept through the world. And I believe probably the Chinese should have handled it a bit better with sharing information. I do not know—I am guessing here—but that is what the international WHO investigation and inquiry hopefully will tell us so we can handle that better next time. But our brave Prime Minister suddenly decided, ‘I am going to be brave and relevant. I’m going to attack the Chinese and demand that the Chinese carry out an investigation and take on China’, because finally he felt—maybe he had a chat to Donald Trump, I am not too sure—he has got a bit of steroid in him and said, ‘Okay, well, I’m now a superpower. I’m going to take on the Chinese’. Seriously? I mean, that resolution was going to get up with or without Morrison—with or without him. With the European Union, who are the main sponsors of that, it was going to get up. But no, let us go and upset our biggest trading partner, and now we are paying the price. Now we are paying the price. I think it is just bad advice. I am not saying, by the way, that he should not have talked about it or that an inquiry should not actually start in relation to the COVID-19 outbreak. If the Chinese government did not handle that properly, that should be exposed and we should learn from it. I think hopefully the Chinese government itself will want to get to the bottom of it as well.

Let me tell you this: you can have all these theories about it—if you listen to Donald Trump about all these conspiracy theories and stuff—but I do not think there is. You are saying to me that the Chinese government decided they wanted to go and kill their own people. Is that what we are saying? I do not think that is the case. You can say as much as you like about how bad they are. Well, I do not agree with you. There is no evidence of that, so let us stop denigrating the Chinese state and government and people. Now, their system of government—that is another debate. But I think it is time we grew up. To me this one has served a political purpose. It has wedged the government, the Labor Party, because Scott Morrison put his foot in it and now we are sort of paying the price with the tariff. That sounds really well with some of our constituents, for example, that, ‘Oh yes, let’s bash them and then we might get some brownie points’.

I think that is dangerous. That is dangerous to do that. You should not play the race card like that.

Mr Finn: Nobody is playing the race card.

Mr Melhem: Well, you are. I am sorry, you are—like when Mr Davis said that John Holland is running the biggest project, but it is owned by the Chinese. So if it is owned by the Americans, it is okay. If it is owned by the Germans, it is okay. If it is owned maybe by the Russians, it may be okay. I mean, come on. If that is not racism, what is it? We should call it out.

I would love to see less and less foreign-owned companies doing major projects in Australia. If that is the argument, that is a great argument. I would support it 110 per cent. But unfortunately the horse has bolted a long, long time ago. We have got two major construction companies, possibly three, who are seeking to do work in Australia, and unfortunately they are not owned by us. John Holland was owned by us at one stage, 25 years ago, by Holmes à Court, who sold it. Then the last owners were the Spanish, and they got themselves in trouble and the Chinese came in and bought it. Lendlease? God knows who owns Lendlease. CPB Contractors? It is all over the place. Unfortunately that is what we have got.

What I think the debate should be about—maybe from both sides of politics as a bipartisan approach, and this challenges probably my own government—is the need to start encouraging more and more of the second- and third- and fourth-tier construction companies to grow, help them to grow and fill the void. Maybe that could be a bipartisan approach, so we would not have to be faced with a CPB-John Holland arrangement or even a company owned by a foreign country. But unfortunately you have got to deal with what you have got, because they are the companies who actually have the capability to build these projects. Maybe that is something we can put in a notice of motion and start debating about: what we can do to start encouraging our second- and third-tier companies to actually do more and more of those projects.

I actually really believe in this. I think we have got a significant capability with second-tier and third-tier construction companies, if we actually help them to grow gradually—because if they grow too fast we know what happens, and I have seen that they crumble reasonably quickly—and encourage them more, give more contracts to them and less to the big players. The big players will just suck you dry and bleed you because that is what they do—because of ‘market forces’, they say. It is basically take it or leave it: ‘No-one else can do the job; we’re the only one’.

We need to achieve our infrastructure programs, to make sure we continue with our level crossing removal program, rail programs and the Metro Tunnel. The Metro Tunnel is progressing really well—we have got the four boring machines now working at a reasonable speed and the project progressing really well. Yes, the West Gate Tunnel has got its problems with the PFAS and the soil. Hopefully that will sort itself out, and then we will have the two boring machines lowered into the ground—they are halfway down now—and they can start digging and getting that job done. We have got the North East Link about to start, and that is a 16-something-billion-dollar project.

Yes, you need a lot of money. Whichever company is going to come and bid for that project, they need financing, so they have got to get the finance from somewhere. Let me tell you, they probably will not be able to get it from the state, because they are bleeding, themselves. I get it: whatever the finance, we should probably have some ethical program where when we borrow it has to have some ethical thing attached to it, and I think we do as part of our procurement policy to make sure we are doing things in an ethical manner. It is actually part of the state government criteria now. We adopt that already; there are certain criteria. Social responsibility, certain ethics, have to be put in place. You do not just go and award a contract to someone just because they are the cheapest. They have to actually demonstrate a number of things, including their labour relations, their ethics and their track record—all these sorts of things. All these boxes need to be ticked.

I did not hear Mr Davis talking, for example, about one of the things we are doing, where we are mandating Australian-made steel in our projects in Victoria. That would have been a real concern, for example, if John Holland had said, ‘Oh, we want to get our steel from China’. They did this initially—a small part—because they could not source it here. But then they were told in no uncertain terms that it has to be Australian-made cement, which it is now—cement and so forth. Ten per cent of trainees and apprentices, encouraging local contractors to be involved in the project and Indigenous workers to be a part of the program, so that we can give them a go and we can actually then help these people to get jobs instead of ending up on the streets. We are now being faced with one of the biggest challenges in our time with Black Lives Matter. The best thing you can do for any race, for any group of people, for any human is to actually give them an opportunity and to give them a job, and that is something that we have been doing as part of our major projects.

With my last 1 minute and 30 seconds—this one is nothing but a witch hunt, a political stunt and a low act; it is not short of racism what is being presented here. We have our other MOU treaties with other countries—we do. We have a list of them on a regular basis in this chamber. I have not heard Mr Davis and his group complaining and launching an investigation into any of those—not a single one. So it is an absolute disgrace that they continue this crusade against the arrangements that this government has made with China, which I think have delivered for both the state of Victoria and China. Soon, hopefully, we can welcome Chinese students back into the great state of Victoria. The Chinese government is saying now to their people, ‘Don’t go there’, because they’re scared. That is a perception. The sooner they come back, it is better for them, for their families and better for Victoria, because I will be welcoming them with open arms. With these comments, I totally reject the premise of this motion.