Billionaire lashed for Chinese ambush

 

 

Billionaire Twiggy Forrest's ambush of the Australian government featuring a surprise appearance by a Chinese diplomat during a nationally televised COVID-19 press conference has sparked fury among Liberal MPs.

Senior ministers have sought to frame the bizarre press conference as an "olive branch" designed to de-escalate rising tensions but it hasn't gone down with some MPs. Even former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull took to Twitter to complain about it.

The event was held to announce that mining magnate Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest's Minderoo Foundation had secured 10 million COVID-19 testing kits from China for use in Australia.

News.com.au revealed yesterday that the senior Chinese official had hijacked the press conference at the invitation of Mr Forrest, allowing China to directly defend its conduct on COVID-19.

 

Mr Forrest defended the surprise appearance of Victoria Consul-General of China Long Zhou, who was invited to the press conference by Mr Forrest and not by Mr Hunt.

"I invited the Consul-General to speak, with the full authority of the Minister for Health, and he gave such a strong speech about nations working together," Mr Forrest said.

But Perth broadcaster Gareth Parker said it was not the first time the philanthropist had arranged for surprise Chinese guests at his press conferences.

"This was the same trick Andrew Forrest pulled when announcing he'd secured medical supplies for WA. He invited Chinese consul Madam Dong to joint presser w/Health Minister Roger Cook without WA Govt's knowledge,'' he said.

Health minister Greg Hunt (centre) departs the press conference at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices in Melbourne. Picture: James Ross
Health minister Greg Hunt (centre) departs the press conference at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices in Melbourne. Picture: James Ross

 

Government sources confirmed the Prime Minister's office was unaware the diplomat would be making a surprise appearance and Mr Hunt was careful not to introduce him or appear at the podium when she spoke.

WA Liberal MP Andrew Hastie said it looked like what it was, an ambush, and he urged the billionaire to butt out of foreign policy.

"Now is not the time for games. Australia must come first," Mr Hastie told The Australian.

"This guy drops out of the sky in his private jet and enables the Chinese Communist Party to ambush a commonwealth press conference. Yeah, we're not happy."

Former resources minister Matt Canavan said he was also concerned by the ambush.

"No proud nation should put themselves in a position where another country can dictate its foreign policy," he said.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said political leaders should not expect business leaders to offer much support when it comes to tricky moments with China.

"An Australian prime minister who ends up in conflict with China cannot expect any support or solidarity from the Australian business community,'' Mr Turnbull said.

"Overwhelmingly, they're totally invested in the economic benefits of the relationship."

 

Senior government sources confirmed it was not expected the consul-general would speak until Mr Forrest welcomed him to the podium and he began praising China's response to the virus.

"The Chinese Government has released information related to the COVID-19 in open, transparent and responsible manner and we have worked closely with WHO (World Health Organisation) and other countries, including shared experiences in epidemic prevention and control and providing assistance within our capacity," the Chinse diplomat said.

"China very much appreciates and thankful to the compassion, support and sympathy of the Australian people to towards the Chinese people in our fight against the virus and vice versa. We are also doing everything possible to help Australia.

"And this project is another testimony of the friendship and the co-operation between our two countries and the two peoples.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the virus knows no ideology, border or race, and in face of the pandemic the testings of all countries are closely interwoven where we're all in this together."

The comments were notable given they come in the middle of a war of words between the two nations, with Chinese state media bashing Australia as a "trouble maker" and comparing it to a piece of chewing gum stuck to China's shoes.

Andrew Forrest. Picture: Colin Murty
Andrew Forrest. Picture: Colin Murty

 

WA Liberal MP Andrew Hastie. Picture: Kym Smith
WA Liberal MP Andrew Hastie. Picture: Kym Smith

 

The mining billionaire dodged questions over whether Australia should continue to push for an independent probe into the origins of the virus.

"The relationship I see between the Australian people and the Chinese people is really one of a common heart,'' Mr Forrest replied.

"My priority is to see the pandemic come to an end so I'll be putting everything I can personally and as the foundation and as my businesses to remove the fear of this pandemic from the Australian people as quickly as possible."

Earlier, Chen Hong, a professor, and director of the Australian Studies Center at East China Normal University also accused Australia or provoking the drama.

"This is not the first time that Canberra has attempted to lead a panda-bashing campaign,'' he said.

He also accused Australia of starting a "blame game that amounts to pointing a finger at the victim".

"Sensational tales, which are far from reality, are being told by media shock jocks and some politicians, who allege that bats are on menus in restaurants in China. This nonsense is stigmatising the Chinese community and the Chinese way of life.

"This is an all-out crusade against China and Chinese culture, led by Australia, which has worked hard in the past to become a comprehensive strategic partner of China."

Zhou Long.
Zhou Long.

Asked about the "panda-bashing" gibe, the Prime Minister said Australia remained committed to an independent inquiry into the origins of the virus.

"Well, Australia will, of course, continue to pursue what is a very reasonable and sensible course of action,'' he said.

"This is a virus that has taken more than 200,000 lives across the world. It has shut down the global economy. The implications and impacts of this are extraordinary. Now, it would seem entirely reasonable and sensible that the world would want to have an independent assessment of how this all occurred."

Samantha Maiden is news.com.au's national political editor | @samanthamaiden

Originally published as Billionaire lashed for Chinese ambush

Victoria and Tasmania Consul-General of China Long Zhou (right) and Health Minister Greg Hunt during the press conference. Picture: James Ross
Victoria and Tasmania Consul-General of China Long Zhou (right) and Health Minister Greg Hunt during the press conference. Picture: James Ross

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