The former premier of Western Australia Colin Barnett has blasted the federal government’s proposed foreign relations bill as “complete overkill”.
Appearing on the ABC’s Q+A on Monday night, the former WA Liberal leader was asked about the intention of the legislation to be considered by parliament, which would give the federal government power to veto agreements that state and local governments and universities enter into with foreign governments.
“It is about China,” Barnett said, saying the laws were being discussed because of the belt and road initiative that Victoria signed – something he said he wouldn’t sign because it “does go close to endorsing the foreign policy of another country”.
Despite his issues with BRI, he said the proposed laws “will stymie relations” with China.
He also said states should have the “governance role” over their own resources, including mining, and that it was an “incredible layer of bureaucracy” and a “patronising attitude” for the federal government to require state premiers to get permission to talk to foreign officials when travelling overseas.
“It is unnecessary to have this legislation,” he said. “It will stymie relations. You will find instead of agreements that are reached being formalised and open to all scrutiny, you’ll probably get just more informal arrangements taking place.
“The relationship between state premiers travelling internationally and the embassies will probably become weakened and less obvious to outsiders. So deal with the issue. If it’s the belt and road initiative, do it.
“Should local governments have to go to the commonwealth to have some sister city relationship with somewhere in the world where it may be students who travel or arts groups and the like?
“This is complete overkill and totally unnecessary and in my view just simply will not work.
“Western Australia, other states will continue to develop their economic policy. They’ll continue to do arrangements with other countries.
“One thing that’s forgotten, this is not the states getting involved in foreign policy. If you’re talking about for example mineral resources, the state is the owner. It’s got a governance role and it’s also got a commercial role in getting a good return for the people of each state and the country as a whole.”
While noting issues including China’s activity in the South China Sea and security laws for Hong Kong, Barnett said “one of the things we should be doing is toning down this bickering with China”, because “it’s doing Australia and Australians’ confidence a lot of damage”.
Jillian Broadbent, the University of Wollongong chancellor, was more tame in her criticism of the proposed foreign relations bill, saying “it’s a bit of overkill”.
She pointed to the federal government’s foreign interference taskforce announced last year, which “didn’t poke the panda as much”.
“We’re a small country, this collaboration and cooperation and research and ideas and thinking has always been leveraging our own capacity,” she said.
“The states going and making their own relationships, trying to develop their own industries, I think we have to recognise that does benefit us and we want to maintain it.”