‘Reckless and desperate’: Malcolm Turnbull savages Peter Dutton for claiming China is backing Labor

Peter Dutton has doubled down on his controversial claims that China would like Labor to defeat the Morrison government at the upcoming federal election, prompting Malcolm Turnbull to warn that such “reckless” comments had “no basis in fact” and harmed Australia’s national security.

The defence minister said on Friday there was “no doubt in [his] mind” about what he described as a “statement of the obvious” regarding China’s preference of Labor. He claimed he based Thursday’s inflammatory allegation on “open source and other intelligence”.

The Morrison government, struggling in the polls, is increasingly seeking to weaponise its perceived advantage on national security issues before the 2022 election, despite Labor’s bipartisan cooperation against China’s aggressive stance in the Asia-Pacific region.

In question time on Thursday, Dutton claimed that the Chinese Communist party had “made a decision about who they’re going to back in the next federal election … and that is open and that is obvious, and they have picked this bloke [Anthony Albanese] as that candidate”.

The personal attack on the Labor leader was echoed by Scott Morrison, who claimed that “those who are seeking to coerce Australia” knew that “their candidate” in the election was “the leader of the Labor party”.

Turnbull told ABC radio that Dutton’s claim was “reckless” because it “undermines Australian security” and “uses matters of grave national security purely for crass political advantage”.

The former Liberal prime minister accused Dutton of seeking to wedge both Labor and Morrison by “rushing off to the right” with the inflammatory claim.

“We should not be turning the debate about China and national security into some kind of reds-under-the-beds scare,” Turnbull said. “The proposition that Albanese is under influence of the CCP is ludicrous. It’s just a sign of desperation.”

Asked how ugly he thought the election campaign could get, Turnbull said he was “worried it’s going to get uglier” and the China accusation was “really bad”.

“Morrison should try to pull Dutton back in on that. It has no basis in fact and all that will do is undermine our prospects of being united in face of pressure from other countries.”

But Dutton defended the claim, telling ABC radio there was “open-source information reported over a long period of time” that China and Russia exerted political influence in Australia and other democracies, including the US and the UK.

China and Russia sought to influence “young members [of political parties] who are on the rise” and “pick somebody who will be influential within that party in years to come”, he said.

“If you look at the facts, in this case, I think certainly, from what I see, both open source and other intelligence that I see it’s a statement of the obvious,” Dutton said, without producing any evidence to substantiate the claim about Albanese.

Instead, Dutton cited “relationships going back to” former the Labor senator Sam Dastyari and the former New South Wales premier Bob Carr, who he said was “obviously very close still to Beijing”.

“There’s no doubt in my mind about the statement that I made yesterday. And I think there needs to be greater awareness, frankly, particularly from the Labor party about the engagement of people who don’t have our national interests [at heart].”

Labor has supported the government’s diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, criticised the Chinese government’s human rights record, and gone further than the Coalition in calling for targeted sanctions to oppose Uyghur forced labour.

In November Albanese rebuffed the former Labor prime minister Paul Keating for arguing for a return to the engagement policies of the 1990s. The opposition leader has also said he stands with Taiwan against Chinese aggression.

The director general of the Office of National Intelligence, Andrew Shearer, has said national security “is rightly bipartisan in a more partisan world” and his dealings with Albanese and senior Labor colleagues during private security briefings have been “cordial, constructive and professional”.

In his threat assessment speech on Wednesday evening, the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Mike Burgess, said “attempts at political interference are not confined to one side of politics”.