Anthony Albanese has accused the government of “playing politics” with national security after revelations it kept Labor in the dark about the Aukus agreement despite Washington’s desire for bipartisan support.
The West Australian premier, Mark McGowan, has also criticised the Coalition for its rhetoric about a Chinese spy ship off the coast of WA last week, alleging that the defence minister, Peter Dutton, was “the biggest threat to national security”.
The comments intensify the political dispute over national security with less than a week to polling day.
The Nine newspapers reported on the weekend that Labor was only briefed about the Aukus security partnership the day before it was made public last September, despite the US making clear in negotiations that it wanted enduring bipartisan backing for the deal given it would be a decades-long endeavour.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, reportedly assured the Americans that Labor would be supportive of the deal based on his assessment of the political dynamics, but Labor has cried foul, saying it should have been brought into the tent earlier.
“Even though Labor could not have been more clear, more decisive, or more certain about our support for Aukus, this prime minister has continued to play politics,” Albanese said.
“The US administration, the information is out there, that they expected Labor to be briefed because this is an issue that doesn’t go for a year or a term of parliament,” Albanese said.
He rejected suggestions that the top-secret nature of the agreement, which gives Australia access to US nuclear-powered submarine technology for the first time, precluded bipartisan discussions, saying Labor had “national security briefings all the time.”
“What this prime minister always does is put the political interests first before the national interest. It’s always about the politics,” Albanese said.
But Morrison on Monday defended the Coalition’s handling of negotiations, saying he wasn’t going to risk sharing the details with Labor until the deal was finalised. He noted that ultimately the agreement had secured bipartisan support.
“This was a process that, for 18 months, painstakingly working through incredible detail, incredibly sensitive issues, highly confidential. This wasn’t something I was going to be loose with,” he said.
“Aukus is a groundbreaking agreement, the most significant defence security agreement Australia has entered into in over 70 years. And I was not going to risk that on the Labor party.”
He also rejected suggestions that Australia had defied the US in not including Labor in earlier discussions, saying the government had “absolutely complied with all of the issues that needed to be addressed in forming that partnership”.
“We understood absolutely what the requirements were and we met them 100 per cent,” he said.
“I find it passing strange that you think we wouldn’t have maintained the absolute discretion, as we did with so many of our own cabinet.”
“I mean, we’ve only seen it highlighted over the course of the last couple of weeks – you’ve got the deputy leader of the Labor party [Richard Marles], who would have been sitting in such a briefing, who had, you know, frequent flyer points for visiting the Chinese embassy in Australia.”
The Australian newspaper has reported that Marles has held 10 meetings with the Chinese embassy or officials in the past five years. However, the same article noted Marles had held “29 meetings with US embassy officials over the time he had 10 with Chinese officials”.
Marles rejected any suggestion of wrongdoing, accusing the government of embarking on a “pretty desperate” attempt to distract from its own failures.
McGowan on Monday claimed Dutton and Morrison were whipping up fear for votes at the election, blasting them for “inflammatory” language around the way a Chinese spy ship’s presence was announced on Friday.
“All this rhetoric by Mr Dutton is just politics. His language around war and around ‘we’ve got to be prepared to fight’, all this sort of stuff that’s gone on for the last year is highly dangerous, and it’s against the national interest,” the Labor premier said.
“It’s inflammatory, and unnecessary. And I just think he’s, you know, he’s the biggest threat to national security.”
Asked about the Chinese surveillance vessel, which had been travelling through parts of Australia’s exclusive economic zone for a week before Dutton announced its presence and called it “an aggressive act”, McGowan didn’t hold back.
“They’ve known about this for a week or so they’ve got the information out there. Mr Dutton is just trying to stir up fear and all that sort of things to win votes. That’s what’s going on,” McGowan said.
McGowan said he didn’t know about the ship’s presence until after Dutton’s press conference. He noted he had been a navy legal officer before entering politics, and that ships transiting through other nations’ EEZ was not uncommon.
“United States, Australia, Britain, we send ships up into other countries exclusive economic zones. If we’re going to allege it’s an aggressive act, other countries can allege that about us,” McGowan said.
“I just think we need to be very careful about language on these things, because otherwise, you’re essentially giving other countries the opportunity to say the same thing about us when we send ships through other countries exclusive economic zones, including China.”
In a press conference in Perth on Friday, Dutton said Australians “deserve to know what is taking place” and said the public understood “the reality of the Indo-Pacific at the moment, the acts of aggression from the Chinese leadership and from the Chinese government”.
Dutton said the ship was “hugging the coastline as it goes north and its intention will be to collect as much electronic intelligence as it can”. He said the ship had been “in close proximity to military and intelligence installations on the west coast of Australia.”