Andrew Hastie should have considered whether his comments on China were “helpful” or “necessary”, the trade minister, Simon Birmingham, has said, as the government deals with the political fallout of the Liberal MP’s inflammatory remarks.
Hastie, a conservative MP from Western Australia who chairs parliament’s joint committee on intelligence and security, penned a column last week for the Nine newspapers that compared China’s rise with that of Nazi Germany.
Ministers have split over the remarks, with Peter Dutton backing in his fellow conservative, but others – including the finance minister Mathias Cormann and the attorney general Christian Porter – dismissing the remarks as clumsy and inappropriate.
Birmingham, who was in China for trade talks centring on the regional comprehensive economic partnership, said the comments had not been helpful.
“I would certainly encourage any colleague or indeed anybody making comments around sensitive foreign policy matters to pose a couple of questions,” he told ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday.
“Is the making of those comments in a public way necessary? Is it helpful to Australia’s national interests?”
China has strongly condemned the remarks as evidence of a “cold war mentality” that was unhelpful to the bilateral relationship with Australia.
In the case of China, he said the national interest was best served by ensuring Australia engaged in a constructive way to make sure it was a responsible citizen in the region and globally, and respected the sovereignty of other nations.
Labor’s defence spokesman, Richard Marles, said China was a complex issue, given its economic ties with Australia and how it asserts itself in the region.
“That does present challenges for us,” Marles told Sky News, while describing Hastie’s comments as “incendiary”.
“There isn’t a cold war going on here, China is not the Soviet Union.”
But the deputy opposition leader said he believed there must be a bipartisan approach to how Australia handles the growing power of China.
He said it was very important that Australia was confident enough to speak its mind and assert its national interest when it might differ from Chinese action.
He said if there was to be a settled approach to China, there needed to be a bigger discussion between the government and the opposition, given Australia’s federal governments have three-year terms.
“We have got to have a settled position going forward over the next few decades and that does require bipartisanship,” he said.
Birmingham said the government already gave the opposition briefings “when required”.
“Of course we will work with the opposition where it is appropriate to do so,” he said.