The federal Environment Department has defended its secretary’s participation in a Chinese government-led international council, saying any suggestion it could be seen as improper is wrong.
Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment secretary Andrew Metcalfe has been a member of the China Council for International Co-operation on Environment and Development since he joined the office nearly two years ago.
Australia’s relationship with China has become strained over trade and human rights in recent years, with a meeting between the countries’ trade ministers not occurring since 2017.
The Australian reported on Monday that Metcalfe was a member of the council. The newspaper cited information from the body’s website that promoted China’s Green Belt and Road Initiative in developing countries, with an academic comparing the material with propaganda.
A department spokesperson distanced Metcalfe from statements on the council’s website, while also highlighting to The Mandarin that Australia had a longstanding involvement with the council, including through attendance of officials and former Environment Department secretaries.
“Any suggestion that the secretary’s participation on the council is improper is incorrect,” the spokesperson said.
“Participation by Australian officials does not imply endorsement of statements on the council’s website.”
A range of international environment experts and policymakers are members of the council, including ministers and former ministers of other governments and a representative of the United Nations.
Signs of some improvement in Australian-Chinese relationships surfaced last week when the Australia China Business Council met with top Chinese executives over climate change issues.
Trade minister Dan Tehan told ABC radio he hoped the meeting “might pave the way for further engagement”.
“I wrote to my Chinese counterpart at the beginning of this year seeking that constructive engagement. We are waiting patiently for that response and in the meantime, we are getting on and looking at other engagements,” Tehan said.