“I will crack on helping my country, unapologetic to those who think racism or isolationism is a viable path for Australia.”
Mr Forrest – the chairman and top shareholder of mining giant Fortescue Metals Group, which exports the steelmaking commodity iron ore to China – said he had “long and collaborative relationships” with many ministers, including Mr Hunt.
“When given the choice on the day, the minister agreed the consul general could speak,” he said. “Minister Hunt is a decisive leader, and this was not a pressured environment.”
But the federal government strongly insists Mr Hunt had no prior knowledge Mr Zhou would be at the event. When Mr Zhou walked into the Commonwealth Parliament Office, Mr Hunt thought he was an FMG employee.
Relations between Australia and Beijing soured this week when the Morrison government called for a global review of the origins of the coronavirus outbreak, which prompted China’s ambassador to respond by suggesting China might boycott Australian services and consumer products.
The stoush has led to a chorus of criticism from the nation’s business community, including media mogul Kerry Stokes, concerned about straining ties with Australia’s top trading partner at a time when Chinese demand for Australian exports could prove critical to supporting the country’s post-lockdown economic recovery. Mr Forrest urged the government to “walk the line where we have a best friend in America, a best friend in China, best friends across South-East Asia”.
On Friday, Peter Coleman, chief executive of $20 billion oil and gas giant Woodside Petroleum, said the government’s rhetoric on China was not helpful.
“The diplomatic relations are just unfortunate, to be quite frank – I don’t think this sort of diplomacy is best played out in public,” he said.
“I think everybody is extremely sensitive at the moment about the pandemic. We are all going through our own crises in trying to deal with COVID-19 so in that regard, some of the unfortunate rhetoric that’s going around, I don’t think it’s helpful.
“The old saying is, ‘Don’t say something when you’re upset that at some point in the future you’ll regret or wish you didn’t say’.”
The government has been eager to move on from what it perceives as distractions, and to draw a distinction between foreign policy and the business interests of corporate heavyweights. “The proper and courteous thing to do was to accept the gentlemen’s presence as a representative of the government, invited by Mr Forrest,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne said.
Inside the federal government, Mr Forrest’s surprise overshadowed what was otherwise a remarkable deal. The purpose of Mr Forrest’s press conference was to announce he had secured 10 million coronavirus tests through his private business networks in China, delivering a 20-fold increase in testing capacity that will allow Australia to ease restrictions earlier than anticipated.
The government, which has been attempting to source its own tests privately complained that it would drive up prices for tests it wanted to secure. To date, without Mr Forrest’s business interests in China, it had only managed to secure a fraction of Mr Forrest’s haul.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison thanked Mr Forrest for securing the testing kits for $320 million, which he will be reimbursed for.
“We’ve worked with Andrew to that end, and we thank him for that. But when it comes to foreign affairs advice, I’ll take my foreign affairs advice from foreign affairs officials,” he told 2GB radio on Friday.
The federal government is increasingly focussing its attention on a key meeting of the World Health Assembly on May 17, where it will push for global independent inquiry into the coronavirus. It will also support a motion for Taiwan, which China claims sovereignty over, to be given back its observer status at the UN health body. Both moves are likely to further strain diplomatic and economic relations with Beijing.
Business reporter for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra