Australia is rocked by an extraordinary Cabinet leak 24 hours before the election showing the Foreign Minister wanted billions for the Pacific – but was turned down before China struck a deal with the Solomon Islands
- Major leak from national security committee just 24 hours before election’s end
- Report that Defence Minister Marise Payne wanted to double Pacific aid funds
- The plan came from Department of Foreign Affairs to counter Chinese influence
- Security committee agreed to a cheaper plan of Covid and infrastructure aid
- Scott Morrison denies there was a leak and says the committee is ‘very tight’
On the eve of Australia’s federal election an extraordinary leak has emerged showing the government knocked back a proposal to expand funding to Pacific nations even as Chinese influence rises in the region.
The leak claims a proposal by Defence Minister Marise Payne to double Australia’s aid in the Pacific from $1.44bn a year to about $2.88bn a year in 2025-26 was rejected by the Government’s National Security Committee.
The plan was put together by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and presented by Ms Payne in recognition of China’s growing presence among Pacific islands, The Australian reported.
But the plan was rejected – before the Solomon Islands then signed a security pact with China in mid-April that has raised fears the Chinese military will eventually establish a base as close as 1,600km from Australia’s east coast.
Mr Morrison described the possibility of such as a base as ‘a red line’ for Australia and its allies.
It’s understood Cabinet regarded the aid funding boost, designed to extend Australia’s ‘soft power’ diplomacy in the region, as too expensive.
The NSC instead approved an extension of Covid-19 support and expansion of its infrastructure loan program for Pacific nations.
Ms Payne has said she won’t comment on Cabinet meetings but there are serious questions about how and why information from one of the government’s most secretive and sensitive committees was leaked so close to election day.
Asked about the leak at a press conference in Perth on Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would not discuss the matters raised. ‘I have no doubt the members of my national security committee are very, very tight,’ he told reporters, before nothing that officials were also present at the security committee meeting, ‘not just ministers’
Asked about the leak at a press conference in Perth on Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would not discuss the matters raised – and would not even confirm there was a leak.
‘I have no doubt the members of my national security committee are very, very tight,’ he said.
‘I’m not going to confirm one way or another the matters in that report. My ministers don’t discuss things that are addressed and worked through at the national security committee.’
Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (left) and China’s ambassador to the Solomon Islands Li Ming (right) cut a ribbon during the opening ceremony of a China-funded national stadium complex in Honiara on April 22
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of the Solomon Islands (second from left) with Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele (left), Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (second from right) and Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right)
Mr Morrison said the committee meeting was ‘not just attended by ministers… It’s also attended by officials.’
He did not comment on an allegation the leak had come from DFAT and disputed that a doubling in aid funding to the Pacific would dissuade China from seeking to increase its presence in the Pacific.
‘You’re suggesting if you double funding in the Pacific, somehow the Chinese government doesn’t have any influence or won’t be seeking to coerce or exert its influence. That assumption doesn’t hold,’ he told one reporter.
The proposal to double Australia’s aid in the Pacific from $1.44bn a year to about $2.88bn a year in 2025-26 was made by Defence Minister Marise Payne but was rejected by the national security committee
‘We invest in the Pacific because they’re our family. And they trust us. And we always will. And we don’t seek things in return.’
Significantly, no senior member of the government has yet denied the substance of the report.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham told the ABC on Friday the sources of the leak ‘could be multiple’.
‘I’m not going to debate the validity of the newspaper report, nor speculate where it may have come from, if indeed there’s accuracy to any elements of it,’ he said.