A former Australian minister for the Pacific has accused her own side of politics of ignoring her warnings about China’s influence in the region, saying it is now up to the Labor government to “remedy the failures of its predecessor”.
Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, whose term as a senator is due to end later this month, also took aim at the “visceral factional dealings of the NSW Liberal party”, saying the preselection saga contributed to an even worse result in the 21 May election defeat.
Fierravanti-Wells, who served as minister for international development and the Pacific from February 2016 to August 2018, was rebuked by Beijing when she accused it of saddling countries in the region with unsustainable debts and building roads to nowhere. Some Pacific leaders were also uneasy about the remarks.
In a farewell email to supporters and constituents on Friday, Fierravanti-Wells said she had used her time as minister to engage “extensively with our Pacific neighbours, making about 35 trips to the region”.
“Sadly, my warnings about the influence of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) in the Pacific and elsewhere were ignored in favour of a policy of appeasement,” she wrote.
Prior to the election, Scott Morrison had sought to claim Labor would be weak on national security and said the Coalition would never pursue “the appeasement path”.
Fierravanti-Wells, who was one of the most hawkish members of the Coalition party room, said that in the initial drafts of the 2017 foreign policy white paper provided to her, the Pacific was “tucked away in the latter chapters”.
“The ‘rivers of gold’ appeared more important to those responsible for our defence, foreign and trade policies, rather than standing up to the bellicose and illegal actions of the CCP, including their actions in the South China Sea,” Fierravanti-Wells wrote.
She said it was regrettable that after she resigned as a minister in Malcolm Turnbull’s government in August 2018, the position was downgraded by Morrison’s government to that of parliamentary secretary, only to be reinstated later as a ministry in May 2019.
“Whilst some colleagues eventually changed their views on the threatened security of the Pacific, it should not be forgotten that it was the Morrison cabinet that approved the visit of three Chinese warships to Sydney on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre,” Fierravanti-Wells wrote.
Morrison defended the “reciprocal visit” at the time, saying it “certainly wasn’t a surprise to the government” and that “any reading into timing could be subject to a bit of over-analysis”.
Fierravanti-Wells did not secure a winnable spot on the Liberal party’s NSW Senate ticket before the election. She launched an extraordinary attack on Morrison in parliament in late March, labelling the then prime minister an “autocrat [and] a bully who has no moral compass”.
Morrison responded to that speech by saying he understood Fierravanti-Wells was “disappointed” by the Senate preselection outcome. “I obviously don’t agree with her assessment.”
In Friday’s email, Fierravanti-Wells said she had been contacted by a multitude of people, including Liberals, to congratulate her on the speech.
“There is no doubt that in conjunction with the ‘captain’s picks’, the deliberate orchestration of delays to select candidates coupled with preselection skulduggery contributed to an even worse result in NSW,” Fierravanti-Wells wrote.
“The denial of plebiscites and democratic processes set out in our constitution will hang heavily on the heads of the cabal of so-called ‘factional negotiators’ and their puppets. The wheels of justice turn slowly, but eventually justice is served.”
Fierravanti-Wells said it was up to the new Albanese Labor government to “remedy the failures of its predecessor and salvage some of our reputation in the Pacific and indeed elsewhere”.
The new foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, was in Solomon Islands on Friday amid ongoing concerns about the security deal between Honiara and Beijing that was signed in April.
Solomon Islands is the fourth Pacific island country that Wong has visited since being sworn in as minister four weeks ago.
She told reporters in Honiara that her meeting with the prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, had been “constructive” and wide-ranging.
“I welcome prime minister Sogavare’s reassurances that there will not be a military base, nor a persistent foreign military presence here in Solomon Islands,” Wong said. “I welcome his assurance that Australia remains Solomon Islands’ first security partner of choice and first development partner of choice.”
Wong said Australia “may not have been perfect, but we are family”.
“Your security and our security are interlinked,” she said.
Wong has used her visits to Pacific island countries to promise the new government’s promise for stronger climate action and to make the case that Australia is “a partner that doesn’t come with strings attached” and won’t impose “unsustainable financial burdens”.
The Chinese embassy in Canberra hit back at that intervention, insisting that China had “never interfered in the internal affairs of island countries, nor sought so-called ‘sphere of influence’ in the region”. Beijing has repeatedly accused the US and Australia of displaying a “cold war” mentality.