The Morrison government, furious with Victoria for letting the coronavirus spread, is increasingly impotent to direct national affairs as states refuse to comply with requests to open their borders, writes Laura Tingle.

We obviously seek opportunities to strengthen engagement with China on regional trade and infrastructure development projects, and that includes the BRI, where those align with international best practices she said.
We have a range of agreements and MOUs with China; they govern infrastructure and other cooperation opportunities, and state and territory governments also look to expand those opportunities.
Victoria and the other states have a variety of similar arrangements with China, and not just with China, in fact, with other countries as well, of course.
Had Victoria consulted with Canberra about the deal? she was asked.
Oh no, that’s a matter for Victoria.and we, as I’ve said, encouraged states and territories to expand opportunities with China.
Any treaty-level arrangements, of course, are made at the Commonwealth level, and you would expect that to be the case.
Yes, thats a particularly long quotation for a column. But worth revisiting in the wake of the announcement by Payne and Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week of new laws giving the federal government the capacity to vet, and veto, agreements made with foreign governments by states, territories, councils and universities, to make sure they were consistent with Australian foreign policy.
Nobody missed the point that the Victorian BRI deal was firmly in the frame in this regard.
That was because the equally new prime minister of November 2018, Scott Morrison, had taken a very different view of the deal to his foreign minister, opining at the same time that he was surprised that the Victorian government went into that arrangement without any discussions with the commonwealth government at all or taking any advice on what is a matter of international relations.
Theyre the responsibilities of the commonwealth government and I wouldve hoped the Victorian government wouldve taken a more cooperative approach to that process.
They know full well our policy on those issues and I thought that was not a very cooperative or helpful way to do things on such issues.
Payne and Morrisons views at the time reflect the difference between day to day diplomacy and politics, as much as they do questions about when exactly an agreement by a state government becomes a matter of international relations.
They may also reflect the fact that it probably still rankles with the prime minister that he was Treasurer and therefore the bloke with final say over foreign investment decisions when the Port of Darwin was sold to the Chinese in 2015.
Because the port was owned by the Northern Territory, the federal government didnt get a say in it, even though, in an embarrassment for all those involved, it later emerged that the Foreign Investment Review Board and Defence establishments had been consulted on the sale and Defence had not raised any problems.
The prime minister said this week that the new laws were a reflection of the fact that we need to ensure that Australia, not just at a federal level, but across all of our governments, speak with one voice, act in accordance with one plan, consistent with the national interest, as set out in Australias foreign policy, as determined by the federal government.
And he is right of course: external affairs are clearly the preserve of the federal government under the Constitution.
Its just that the government chose this week, of all weeks, to announce this concern for all these arrangements of this nature, of this level, which Payne pointed out in 2018 were made regularly with other countries in this region and more broadly, were alarming enough to provoke an entire new body of federal law.
That would be a week in which he and his government were furious with Dan Andrews and Victoria about letting the coronavirus spread into the community, and was feeling increasingly impotent to direct national affairs as states refused to comply with requests to open their borders.
Clearly, since 2018, the governments concern about what are seen as Chinas attempts to influence Australian politics and policy have escalated, as has China’s assertiveness in the region.
But given the prime minister had these concerns way back in 2018, how come when he finally decided to announce these new laws there was no details of how the scheme would work, no legislation, and no consultation with any of the parties that might be affected by it?
In what may have been a Baldrick moment, someone seemed to decide at the last moment to also include universities in the scheme, a move which had the added political attraction of bringing the governments alarm and alarmists about possible infiltration of our academic sector by China into the frame for good measure.
Except the universities have already been brought in from the cold on this issue. Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the establishment of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce in August last year.
Under the eye of defence, national security and foreign affairs bureaucracies, it developed guidelines to ensure research, collaboration and education activities must be mindful of national interest.
Then with no warning, and certainly no consultation, the universities heard of the new laws late on Wednesday after details of them were briefed out to journalists as a “drop” for morning newspapers and bulletins.
Of course we dont have any details of what is involved, but the the announcement suggests an entirely new section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, full of bureaucrats fastidiously scrutinising literally tens of thousands of agreements signed by state and local governments an universities over the years, disallowing both existing and prospective deals.
The reality of course is that the policing of such a system would be much more likely to focus on a few key targets, like the Victorian BRI deal and the Confucius Institutes that operate in the universities.
Then again, like many of the governments recent announcements, particularly on funding, there is a chance we may hear little more about these new laws, even though a Labor opposition too scared to be baited on anything to do with national security would likely wave them straight through the parliament.