Premier Daniel Andrews has fended off concerns about human rights abuses linked to a Chinese company building a fleet of trains for Victoria, stressing the importance of local jobs from the $2.3 billion contract.
Mr Andrews said that although he did not "agree with everything that is done in every country", the government accepted assurances from train builder CRRC that it was not benefitting from exploited workers from the country's Uighur minority.
Daniel Andrews unveiled the new CRRC trains at Downer’s Newport facility in 2018.Credit:Justin McManus
The state-owned rolling stock manufacturer was recently blacklisted by the US government due to the security risks posed by its ties to the Chinese government. It was also identified by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in March as a beneficiary of potentially exploited Uighur labour through one of its Chinese suppliers.
Mr Andrews said on Monday the government had sought assurances from a subsidiary of CRRC, CRRC Changchun Railway Vehicles, that Uighurs were not part of its supply chain. The project to build Victoria's train fleet is 18 months behind schedule.
Mr Andrews said he had not sought national security advice on the firm from the federal government and was confident the project was not benefiting from the work of China's Muslim minority, more than a million of whom have been sent to "re-education" camps that have been likened to concentration camps by human rights groups.
"We don't agree with everything that is done in every country around the world but ultimately we are about getting things done," Mr Andrews said.
"We have sought assurances that it is not an accurate statement in relation to the work we have contracted them to do and have received those assurances.
"We have made our views and preferences and what we want to see happen well-known and have received assurances to that end."
Mr Andrews said he was aware the government had asked for assurances from the company but was not aware of the details of what was asked for. Earlier on Monday, Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan said she had asked her department to question the company about the allegations several months ago, which the company denied.
In June, the US Defence Department placed CRRC on a list of Chinese companies, including Huawei, with close ties to the Chinese government or military that can be subject to emergency economic powers and sanctions by the US President.
Mr Andrews said it was not the job of the state government to determine whether CRRC posed a national security threat and questioned the basis of the US targeting CRRC.
"If those judgments are to be made, they should be made by security agencies, not by the US government … They have made some choice, I don't know what the basis of that decision is," he said.
"I don't do national security reviews. They are done by national security agencies. No one's raised any questions about this company with us. If that were to change then we would take the appropriate action but [that is a hypothetical situation]."
Mr Andrews and Ms Allan emphasised the local jobs, particularly in regional areas, created by the consortium delivering the trains which includes CRRC, Downer EDI and Plenary Group. The consortium is required to use 60 per cent local content but unions are sceptical this target will be met after work originally slated to be completed in Melbourne was offshored to CRRC’s factory in China.
Mr Andrews also pointed to the NSW government's relationship with CRRC as evidence of the firm's Australian bona fides.
In 2006, NSW awarded a $3.6 billion contract to a consortium including a company that merged into CRRC. The Waratah trains were delivered years late and $550 million over budget. In 2016, the Baird government exercised an option in the initial contract to purchase 24 additional Waratah double-deckers at a cost of $1.7 billion.
Mr Andrews said the delay on the Victorian project was not similar to those faced in NSW.
"I wouldn't accept the conclusion that any issues with this project are the same as the issues that were experienced in New South Wales. I wouldn't accept that at all," he said.
"What I can say to you is we are making sure this is done properly and making sure it is not just to the highest standards but exceeds the highest standards given the sheer volume of people that will be moved getting from home to where they need to be and back again."
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