A Coalition MP praised a now contentious trip to China featuring Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, as “an invaluable opportunity to have open and candid dialogue”.
The Morrison government has attempted to discredit the opposition’s claim that the major parties are united on China policy by highlighting Marles’ trip to China in 2019 and his speech to a Beijing university. Marles said at the time it would be a “profound mistake” to define China as an enemy.
But it has emerged that the Liberal National party backbencher Ted O’Brien – who joined Marles and Labor’s Tanya Plibersek on the three-day study tour organised by the China Matters thinktank – praised the 2019 trip.
Marles travelled to Beijing early to deliver the speech, before joining the study tour the next day.
“China Matters provided an invaluable opportunity to have open and candid dialogue with thought-leaders, specialists and practitioners of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] government, business sector and civil society,” O’Brien said in a testimonial.
“For Australia to continue navigating its future amidst an uncertain global political economy, it’s vitally important that we deepen our understanding of China and they deepen their understanding of us,” he said.
O’Brien’s praise of China Matters appears to contradict Liberal senator James Paterson, who told the Australian newspaper on Monday that the thinktank was “a controversial organisation which is sympathetic to the Chinese Communist party”. The thinktank strongly disputes the claim.
The members of the study tour also included the president of the National Farmers’ Federation, Fiona Simson, and Rio Tinto government relations adviser Brian Pontifex.
When asked on Monday night whether he retained the same view about the September 2019 study tour and China Matters, O’Brien told Guardian Australia: “My testimonial stands.”
But O’Brien said navigating how best to deal with China was “the biggest challenge facing our nation” and he worried the Labor party “seems so clueless”.
“You need look no further than the dangerous and ill-conceived views of Richard Marles to realise the need for a far deeper understanding of China, its underlying motivations and intentions,” O’Brien said.
“The same goes for China’s need to better understand Australia, as the communist regime’s current strategy of bullying and coercion and refusing dialogue has failed because our positions are based on a set of principles and values that we’re prepared to strongly defend.
“While there’s a place for parliamentary delegations, they’re not enough to develop a sophisticated understanding of the various complexities of a country like China, and Richard’s views on the regime make this apparent.”
The day before the study tour began, Marles delivered a speech to the Beijing Foreign Studies University in which he said Australia must seek to build the relationship with China “not just in economic terms, but also through exploring political cooperation and even defence cooperation”.
Marles, who was then Labor’s defence spokesperson, said talk of a new cold war was “silly and ignorant” and Australia did not have “an exclusive right to engage with the Pacific”. The basis of Australia’s interest in the Pacific “cannot be about attempting to engage in the strategic denial of others”.
After a renewed focus on the September 2019 trip in recent days, Marles noted that he had also raised human rights concerns.
Labor argues the government is seeking to distract from the signing of a security agreement between China and Solomon Islands on the Coalition’s watch.
Marles admitted on Monday to an “administrative mistake” in failing to disclose the China Matters-funded portion of his trip to China on the register of members’ interests. Both O’Brien and Plibersek had already done so.
The Australian reported on Monday that Marles had claimed $6,191 in taxpayer funds for the initial portion of the visit to China, prior to joining the China Matters-funded study tour.
Marles said the travel was “in an official capacity in accordance with the parliamentary business resources framework”.
“All travel for parliamentary business is reported quarterly by the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority,” Marles said in a statement.
“On this occasion, an administrative error was made and part of my trip – paid for by China Matters – was not on my register of members’ interests as it should have been. I have sought to rectify this.
“My trip to Beijing has not been a secret, and has been well covered in multiple newspapers, online coverage and several interviews.”
Marles has confirmed an earlier report in the Australian that he had given a copy of the speech to the Chinese embassy in Canberra in advance – but said he had not made any changes after doing so.
He said on Saturday he shared the speech because he had “criticised China” and “wanted to make sure that the Chinese government were not at all surprised”.
In the 2019 speech, Marles said Australia would continue to “raise our concerns, as we have about the minority Uyghur population in Xinjiang, or the situation in Hong Kong”.
“We do this on behalf of all Australians who believe people have a right to express their views through peaceful and lawful assembly,” Marles said on 23 September 2019.
Marles told reporters on Saturday: “How many government ministers have gone to China, and in China publicly criticised the Chinese government?”
The Coalition has been seeking to shine attention on Marles’ speech since February when Paterson uploaded it to his website and questioned why it was not on the Labor MP’s own site.
Paterson told Sky News: “I would never, ever share a speech in advance of giving it with a foreign authoritarian government.”
In parliament, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, labelled Marles a “Manchurian candidate” before withdrawing the claim amid pushback from current and former security officials.
Last week the defence minister, Peter Dutton, said: “Richard Marles, of course, went to Beijing. I don’t know who paid for his trip. I don’t know who he visited there. I don’t know who he spoke to. I don’t know the relationships that he formed. I don’t know who he’s kept in contact with since that time. But he came back with some certain views and he’s expressed those.”