Australia’s defence minister declared he has “no doubt” the Chinese Communist party wants the Morrison government to lose the election, prompting the opposition to denounce the appeasement claims as a “conspiracy theory”.
Peter Dutton was challenged during a debate on Thursday to defend the government’s rhetoric that a Labor government would “appease” the CCP – after previous pushback from current and former national security officials – and said he believed it “very strongly”.
The shadow minister, Brendan O’Connor, said the appeasement claim was baseless because both major Australian parties had the same policy in dealing with a “more assertive, more aggressive, more coercive” China.
O’Connor acknowledged the risk of foreign interference, saying “you will see China involve itself in our matters from time to time improperly”, but said that Dutton’s line of attack against Labor was tailored for his own political purposes.
The exchange occurred during a spirited policy debate at the National Press Club in Canberra, during which O’Connor challenged Dutton over his previous commentary about a war over Taiwan, and the defence minister attempted to pressure the Labor MP over asylum seeker policy.
Dutton stood by the comment he made in November that it would be “inconceivable” Australia would not join the US in such a conflict with China.
When asked whether, on reflection, answering a hypothetical about a war with a nuclear superpower was the right thing to do, Dutton said Australia was “a great and reliable friend and ally”.
Dutton said: “So, do I think that we would shirk away from our responsibility to be a good ally with the United States? No, I don’t. And I don’t think that that would be in the interests of our country.”
Dutton pointed to previous statements by the former Labor leader Mark Latham in an attempt to prosecute the argument Labor would even pose a risk to the US alliance.
“I think that you would put us in an incredibly precarious position if Labor again decided to break the alliance with the United States. I think that that would be a travesty,” Dutton said to O’Connor.
O’Connor said the suggestion that Labor would break the alliance was “absurd”.
“That’s never happened,” O’Connor said.
Dutton attempted to pressure O’Connor over asylum seeker policy, saying that when the Labor MP “sat around the national security committee table, you were responsible for the arrival of some 12,000 people and 184 boats”.
Dutton asked: “What do you say to the men and women of the Australian Navy who are still suffering from PTSD today from having pulled those bodies from the water of those women and children who drowned at sea?”
O’Connor, a former minister for immigration, replied that he had “enormous admiration for the customs and naval personnel who rescued people at sea, who were going to dangerous situations in high sea stakes”.
“And I can remember vividly in 2010 when I flew into Christmas Island on the day that that un-seaworthy vessel floundered on the rocks off Christmas Island,” he said.
“I was involved with the administrator having to set up a temporary morgue of people.
“It was a devastating time for those people, for naval and customs personnel, who I later on met privately because of their brave actions.”
O’Connor said that he was “very much instrumental in moving and changing the policy of the ALP to take on a more deterrent position” in relation to asylum seeker boat journeys.
He attempted to turn the heat back to Dutton, given that the Coalition helped block the Gillard government’s Malaysia solution.
“But I’ll tell you this, I didn’t join up with the Greens like Scott Morrison, Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton, to stop us trying to put in place a Malaysian arrangement,” O’Connor said.