‘Big break from protocol’: Andrews releases bare-bones itinerary of surprise China trip

Premier Daniel Andrews has been accused of paying lip service to press freedom after shunning Victorian journalists on his trade mission to China and providing limited details of his itinerary on his first day in Beijing.

Andrews landed in China on Tuesday morning for his four-day trip aimed at strengthening Victoria’s standing among prospective Chinese students. He is joined by the secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Jeremi Moule, and two staff members from his private office.

Premier Daniel Andrews in Beijing in 2015.Credit:Twitter

In a break from tradition, Andrews did not invite journalists, representatives from the education sector he was seeking to boost or a relevant minister.

The premier’s office released a schedule on Tuesday afternoon of his first day showing that Andrews would meet Brett Stevens, Commissioner for Victoria to Greater China; Graham Fletcher, Australian ambassador to China; Li Xukui, the vice-president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries; Education Minister Huai Jinpeng; and Beijing Mayor Yin Yong.

Karen Percy, president of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, said sidelining established media meant the information provided was in danger of becoming propaganda.

“At a bare minimum, there should be a decent briefing,” Percy said.

“It’s just a really bad look. You’ve got to wonder what have they got to hide? Why are they not prepared to allow scrutiny?”

She said the Victorian government paid lip service to press freedom while shunning the opportunity for transparency and questions. She said it was all the more important to invite local media given Australian correspondents in China had been forced to leave.

Asked why journalists should rely on the agenda released by the premier’s office when they could not independently verify its contents, acting Premier Jacinta Allan said Andrews had been “particularly transparent” ahead of his trip, which was announced a day before he travelled.

“Whether it’s providing information, press releases, itinerary updates, budget papers, we provide this information in an open and transparent way. The premier has been particularly transparent in addressing his trips before he left. I’m sure he’ll address his trip with you when he returns,” Allan said.

To explain the absence of journalists on Sunday, Andrews said the trip was “not picture-friendly”.

“It’s back-to-back meetings. That’s why we won’t be bringing the media with us.”

Percy said it was not about picture opportunities: “It’s about understanding what is being done in our name.”

Press freedom advocate Peter Greste, who spent more than a year behind bars in Egypt, said on Monday that providing a daily list of meetings and events would not be good enough.

“It’s hardly a good look to travel to a place like China, which is the world’s greatest jailer of journalists, and not travel with any journalists. It sends a very bad message,” Greste said.

He said Andrews should not be squandering the opportunity to raise the plight of Melbourne television journalist Cheng Lei, who has been jailed in China for more than two years.

Speaking to The Age on Monday night, Cheng’s partner, Nick Coyle, said Andrews’ comments disappointed him.

“More importantly, it disappoints Lei and, of course, her two children, who are Victorians,” he said.

Shadow education minister Matt Bach welcomed the trip and the significant benefits it could bring. But he was concerned that Andrews was not taking representatives from the education sector with him to help forge relationships with Chinese institutions.

Australian journalist Cheng Lei and her partner, Nick Coyle.Credit:The Age/ Getty Images

“Why can’t industry leaders go? It’s a big break with protocol. And it’s entirely unclear why it’s happening.”

Phil Honeywood, from the International Education Association of Australia, welcomed the trip but said it was highly unusual that nobody from the sector was invited.

“We welcome the premier going to China; it’s really good for engagement with our sector. But it’s just a mystery as to why we’ve got so much camouflage happening.”

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