Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made a significant error in trying to justify the decision to lease Australia’s crucial northern port to Chinese interests, by claiming it is not used by the military.
The Northern Territory Government sparked international controversy last month when it decided to lease the Port of Darwin facilities to a Chinese-owned company.
Some defence analysts have warned the company, Landbridge, has strong links to the Chinese Communist Party. They have also warned China will use the lease strategically to secure a presence in the north of Australia.
The ABC has also been told US president Barack Obama raised the sale directly with Mr Turnbull in a face-to-face meeting this week.
On Friday Mr Turnbull was questioned by Darwin radio station MIX 104.9 about the sale of the port.
“The port that is being leased is not being used by the military, it is a commercial port,” he said.
But according to an announcement by the Darwin Port Corporation on November 16, the lease includes East Arm Wharf commercial port outside Darwin and the Fort Hill Wharf close to the city’s CBD.
Fort Hill Wharf is advertised as a “cruise ship and Defence vessel facility”.
The Darwin Port Corporation website promotes the wharf as catering to “frequent naval ship visits” for visiting international and domestic naval ships.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister has since issued a media statement, which said Mr Turnbull was making the point that the Darwin facility “is a commercial port not a military port”.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly defended the lease arrangements.
“Naturally Defence has access to the port if required,” the statement said.
“Regardless, Defence has made it very clear it has no security concerns about the lease.”
The Prime Minister also stressed Defence could step in and take over management of the port for national security reasons.
But Luke Gosling, the Labor candidate for the federal seat of Solomon in Darwin, said the Prime Minister had misunderstood the port lease deal.
“According to the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory’s release, the facilities that are included in the lease of the port for 99 years — almost a century — includes facilities like Fort Hill Wharf that are used not only by the Australian Navy but also the militaries of other countries as well, so it would be good if the Prime Minister, when coming to the north, knew what he was talking about,” Mr Gosling said.