Andrews defends China trip as Pesutto calls for inquiry

Premier Daniel Andrews has defended his controversial recent trip to China by pointing to agreements on education and events that he said would bring economic benefits to the state.

As Opposition Leader John Pesutto reiterated demands for greater transparency about the trip, including a call for an inquiry, Andrews declared meetings with representatives from Victoria’s sister states of Jiangsu and Sichuan were successful.

Andrews’ four-day trip – which ended when he arrived home on Saturday – made him the first leader of an Australian government to visit China since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Sunday, Andrews said a meeting with China’s education minister resulted in the establishment of a working group on post-graduate education, which the premier hoped would result in more international students in Victoria and more Victorian post-graduates spending time in China.

He also said a Victorian display stand would have “pole position” at an upcoming food and beverage show in Chengdu at his request, while officials from the World University Games would share their experiences with Victoria’s Commonwealth Games organisers.

“I think that our brand, if you like, is very, very strong, but we should never take it for granted in a very competitive world,” Andrew said.

Facing questions about his decision not to take any media on the trip, Andrews said he doubted visas would have been issued for journalists, and noted his meetings didn’t feature a large number of business people or experts, nor were any deals signed.

Andrews said he had travelled to China and Vietnam in 2019 and to India in 2018, and both trips were without media.

“You would have been talking to me about what I had just done,” Andrews told reporters. “You would not have been in the room, you would certainly not have been interviewing the governors or mayors or education ministers I was meeting with – that’s not how it works.

“Again, I’m not saying that’s a good thing. That’s a very different system. The notion that if you’d been there you … would have been able to have a long chat or any chat to the people I met with, that would not have happened. That’s never happened.”

Andrews spoke with the Department of Foreign Affairs and trade leaders before his trip and also with Australia’s eastern and western consular generals in China.

But he said the state’s Big Build project, which comprises major road and rail works, was not discussed during his visit as it was not part of the higher education or trade fields.

Pesutto on Sunday said he supported the premier’s trade mission but argued Victorians were entitled to greater transparency.

“It’s not good enough that you can travel anywhere, not [take] media with you, not explain the full itinerary,” Pesutto said.

The opposition leader noted West Australian Premier Mark McGowan’s trade mission to China this week will be accompanied by journalists.

Pesutto said the Coalition would push for an inquiry into Andrews’ trip to “make sure this doesn’t happen again”.

He said he wanted to travel to China as opposition leader and would be “more than happy” to take media on any international visit.

Andrews declined to engage with past criticism directed at the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, after he met with the organisation’s vice-president last week.

The association has previously faced criticism as a soft power arm of the Chinese government in the United States, including from then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo and US intelligence agencies.

“I see some commentary from Donald Trump’s former secretary of state and I’m not having a debate with him,” Andrews said on Sunday.

“More generally, he’s not in any position to be lecturing Victoria on what we should or shouldn’t do.”

With Annika Smethurst

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