Malcolm Turnbull has accused his former colleagues of failures on Australia’s regional security, taking a potshot at Morrison directly – saying “this is a hose you have to hold” – as the Coalition scrambles to defend its handling of the situation.
It comes as China accuses Scott Morrison of spreading “disinformation” and Peter Dutton of having a “cold war mentality” over its security pact with Solomon Islands, saying there were no plans to build a military base on the Pacific nation.
Last week’s confirmation of the Solomons-China security agreement has sent shock waves through the Australian federal election campaign, with both the Coalition and Labor moving to talk up their credentials on defence and diplomacy. Labor on Tuesday pledged to increase foreign aid to Pacific island countries and boost regional broadcasting, saying it was important to “restore Australia’s place as first partner of choice for our Pacific family”.
“In the face of Chinese increased assertiveness and aggression, one of the key ways you ensure Australia’s security is to secure our region, and Mr Morrison has dropped the ball on that task,” Labor shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, told Radio National.
Senior Coalition members have intensified their rhetoric on China in the wake of the announcement. Morrison said on Sunday that a Chinese military base in the Solomons would be a “red line” for Australia and allies like the US, and on Monday warned of an “arc of autocracy” in the region. Dutton, the defence minister, said on Monday that Australia would “stare down any act of aggression”.
“The only way you can preserve peace is to prepare for war and be strong as a country. Not to be on bended knee and be weak,” Dutton said on Anzac Day.
The Solomon Islands prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, has said there would be no Chinese base in his country under the deal. Labor’s shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers, said on Sunday that “the final text of the agreement is not yet available … there is the prospect here of basing Chinese military assets, in the Solomon Islands”.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, was asked about Morrison’s “red line” comment in a press conference on Monday.
“The speculation that China will build a military base in Solomon Islands is pure disinformation fabricated by a handful of people who harbour ulterior motives,” he said, according to a government-issued transcript.
“Island countries in the South Pacific are independent and sovereign states, not a backyard of the US or Australia.”
Asked about Dutton’s recent insinuation that China had paid bribes as part of the security agreement, Wang was more scathing.
“Certain Australian politicians are clinging to the Cold War mentality and smearing China with lies to sow discord between China and countries it has friendly ties with,” he said.
“The politicians should earnestly face up to the concerns of people at home and abroad, instead of spreading disinformation to disparage China for their own political gains.”
Labor has accused the Coalition of failing to appropriately respond to the security pact, critical that Pacific minister Zed Seselja was dispatched on behalf of Morrison government instead of foreign minister Marise Payne. In a Radio National interview, Payne defended Australia’s response and the decision for her to not raise concerns in person in Honiara, saying the government had a “broad” engagement in the region.
But Payne said she had not visited Solomon Islands since 2019. Asked if she would travel there in the wake of the China pact, Payne said the Coalition would “work through these processes with our partners”.
Turnbull, who was deposed as PM in 2018 by Morrison, told Radio National he was critical of Dutton’s “prepare for war” comments.
“Peter Dutton’s rhetoric is becoming more and more bombastic and belligerent. It’s just a pity he doesn’t match it with actual preparation and work … he thinks the object of being the defence minister is having a sensational headline in a tabloid newspaper,” Turnbull said.
He also said the Coalition should have done more on the Solomons-China pact, accusing the government of “bullyboy language”, and that it was a mistake for Payne not to go to Honiara.
“You have to use engagement, diplomacy, you have to be persuasive, you have to go and visit these countries, get to know these leaders, spend time with them,” Turnbull said.
“There is no substitute for being there, being face-to-face on the ground … this is a hose you have to hold, this needs time and attention. You cannot abrogate or step away from responsibility.”
His “hold a hose” comments refer to Morrison’s infamous comments following his Hawaiian holiday during the 2019 bushfires.
Payne also rubbished Labor’s Pacific policy, saying there was “nothing new”.
“We’ve actually done some of the things that they’re talking about and they appear to be ignoring,” she said.
Morrison, speaking on 2GB radio, had similar criticisms, and joked about Labor’s plan to expand Australian broadcasting coverage through the Pacific.
“They think the way to solve the problem in the Solomon Islands is to send in the ABC,” he said.
“It’s farcical, when their answer to solving the Solomon Islands problem is to have Q&A in Honiara.”