Coronavirus in Australia: Labor accuses Scott Morrison of ‘offending China’ with call for a COVID-19 inquiry

Labor has accused Scott Morrison of offending the Chinese by calling for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, saying he caused the current trade tensions impacting barley, beef, iron ore and now coal. Joel Fitzgibbon, Labor’s spokesman on agriculture and resources, has made several media appearances in the past 24 hours to level pointed attacks on the Prime Minister’s stance.
As a result of that stance, Mr Fitzgibbon said the relationship with Beijing “has grown so bad that Australian ministers are unable to pick up the phone to their Chinese counterparts”.
The veteran Labor MP appeared on ABC News yesterday and linked the current trade woes to Mr Morrison.
“About a month ago, our Prime Minister ran out in front of the rest of the world before consulting anyone else and decided we need an inquiry into COVID-19,” Mr Fitzgibbon said on ABC News.
“Of course, we need an inquiry but the way in which our Prime Minister went about that was offensive to the Chinese. They did believe they were being targeted.”
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In addition to lobbying world leaders, Mr Morrison also proposed a new model similar to that of weapons inspectors, who can enter a country uninvited to conduct investigations.
“He said we need UN-style weapons inspectors marching into China, kicking down the laboratory door, insisting on the test-tubes and the computers and the Petri dishes,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.
“(Australia) didn’t need to be out there in front, offending the Chinese, and if we hadn’t done that, we might not be having some of the diplomatic relationship troubles we’re having at the moment.
“We might not be dealing with barley … export ban, and we might not have four meat processors prevented from exporting to China and we might not have started our conversation about what might or might not happen with iron ore.”
And he accused the PM of seeking to capitalise on the China issue politically, saying an inquiry would’ve happened without his call for one.
“The claim that Australia secured this inquiry is ridiculous,” he said.
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Mr Fitzgibbon said Australia should “absolutely” care about offending China because one-third of the country’s exports head there.
“Is anyone suggesting that we weren’t going to have an inquiry into the source and spread of COVID-19? It’s just a ridiculous proposition.
“Scott Morrison would have you believe that if he hadn’t run out in pack, without any model in his mind about what this inquiry should look like, that we wouldn’t be having an inquiry.”
Mr Fitzgibbon repeated his attacks on the PM on 2GB today, saying the government had repeatedly used “inflammatory language” when discussing China.
“We didn’t need to do these things,” he said. “We don’t need to do that to defend our national interest. We need to be able to walk and chew gum too.”
And in another interview on Sky News yesterday, Mr Fitzgibbon dismissed suggestions that China was “bullying us” by blocking trade.
“We’ve been demonising the Chinese and their system of governance,” he said.
“Malcolm Turnbull, for example, changed Foreign Investment Review Board thresholds, so that there were special discriminatory rules for the Chinese. They deliberately constructed Foreign Interest registers with a clear intention of targeting China, for domestic political gain.
“And of course, now we’ve had our most recent and current Prime Minister, basically saying things like we should send weapons-style supervisors into China, against their will.”
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Those stern remarks are somewhat at odds with the Opposition’s previous position.
In the wake of the PM lobbying world leaders to support an independent probe of the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, Labor leader Anthony Albanese offered his support for the position.
Mr Albanese was specifically asked today if he supported Mr Fitzgibbon’s comments but declined to answer, instead saying he hadn’t spoken to him about them.
Speaking on Sky News yesterday, Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles repeated support for the inquiry but claimed Australia’s relationship with China was in trouble long before COVID-19.
“Let’s be clear – the call for an independent inquiry into the origins of coronavirus is quite right and we support it,” Mr Marles said.
“It’s what should be happening. But well before that, this relationship has been going in the wrong direction.
“And I think it’s been hard to really get a clear sense of direction from the government about what the underlying principles that guide philosophies in terms of how they are relating to China.”
Mr Marles said the government’s foreign policy and trade position had been hijacked by “the fringes of the government” and not the PM or Foreign Minister.
“It’s a very complex, it’s a very serious relationship. It’s one where we clearly have a significant engagement economically. It’s one where if you want to walk down the path and try and put a black or a white hat on China, you are going to get the answer wrong. This is complex.”