Labor MP wants Darwin port in Aussie hands

Matt Coughlan
Labor says the port of Darwin must be put back in Australia's control and a Chinese lease scrapped

The Morrison government has shot down a Labor MP's calls to scrap a Chinese lease of Darwin's port so it can be returned to Australia's control.

Nick Champion, who is the deputy chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, has become the first federal politician to advocate for the port's return.

"I think there was not enough consideration of the national interest in that particular privatisation of this port," he told the ABC on Monday.

The NT government leased the port to Chinese company Landbridge in a 99-year, $500 million deal in 2015.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said there was no proposal before the government to reclaim the port, after distancing the federal coalition from the lease.

"The commonwealth government never approved that sale," he told reporters.

The move comes as Australia hosed down speculation the United States was seeking support from Canberra to put ground-based missiles in Darwin.

Mr Morrison said the US had not requested a missile deployment in northern Australia, while Defence Minister Linda Reynolds also denied the issue was raised during a meeting on Sunday with newly-appointed US Defence Secretary Mark Esper.

"It's not been asked of us, not being considered, not been put to us. I think I can rule a line under that," Mr Morrison told reporters in Brisbane.

After the Darwin Port lease was approved, the federal government tightened rules around foreign investment to ensure national security issues are considered.

"We worked with the state and territory governments to ensure that in a situation like that again, it wouldn't be left to the sole discretion of the state and territory government."

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann also moved to rule out the prospect of nationalising the port.

"We are not considering either the purchase of Darwin Port by the federal government or any proposition of a forced change of ownership," he told AAP.

Mr Champion said the port was important because Australia had significant defence facilities in the NT.

"We should look pretty clearly at making sure that that port is in government hands. It's for those reasons, I think, it should be nationalised," he told the national broadcaster.

The port lease sparked concerns within Defence about Landbridge taking control of what could be considered a strategic asset.

But Mr Champion doesn't believe nationalising the port would anger China, which is Australia's largest trading partner.

"This should be an assertion of our national sovereignty, of our national interest and I think if it's put in those terms then companies, and others, can make their own understandings about why we've done it," he said.

One Nation leader Pauline Hanson has grave concerns about Chinese ownership of Darwin's port.

"I think one day they'd love to have their hands on Australia and they're slowly taking it, not by stealth, by cunning," she told Nine's Today program.

"You can see they're strategically setting themselves up in the islands around Australia as well."

Senator Hanson said she believed China's growing population was looking for somewhere to move and had "their eyes on Australia".