Article – Nationals MP calls for 'mature' foreign investment debate

15 April 2014
Anna Vidot
ABC Rural

PHOTO: Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and Chinese President Xi Jinping on 11 April, 2014. Australia says it’s keen to introduce ‘flexibility’ into the foreign investment rules to ensure a free trade deal with China.

As debate over foreign investment in Australian agricultural land and businesses heats up once again, one Nationals MP is calling for a ‘mature discussion’ about the issue.
Bruce Scott, the federal LNP member for Maranoa in western Queensland, says the Prime Minister Tony Abbott is right to start a conversation about whether Australia’s restrictions on foreign investment from Chinese state-owned enterprises are appropriate.
The Prime Minister told a function in Shanghai, China, on Friday that ‘investment in another country is a sign of trust’.
“We now appreciate that most Chinese state-owned enterprises have a highly commercial culture. They’re not the nationalised industries that we used to have in Australia,” Mr Abbott said.
“That’s why Australia has never rejected any investment application from a Chinese state-owned enterprise and recently approved a large state-owned enterprise investment in critical infrastructure.”
Indications that Mr Abbott is prepared to consider relaxing the current rules, which require all proposed investment by foreign state-owned enterprises to be scrutinised by the Foreign Investment Review Board, has concerned some members of his Coalition government.
But the LNP’s Bruce Scott, who sits in the federal Nationals party room, isn’t one of them.
“What I think Mr Abbott said, is that if we’re prepared to reform as progressively as China will be reforming the ownership of state-owned enterprises, then we should look at progressively dealing with them on that basis.
“I support that, and I think it is time for a mature debate about this whole issue. China is going to be so critical to our future.”
In addition to the zero-threshold trigger for FIRB scrutiny of purchases by state-owned enterprises, the Coalition won the election promising closer scrutiny of foreign private purchases of agricultural land and agribusiness. While the current trigger for FIRB review is $248 million, the Coalition locked in lower thresholds of $15 million for land, and $53 million for agribusiness, in the two free trade agreements recently signed with Korea and Japan.
Mr Scott says that since the election, there have been ‘clear messages coming back that perhaps we’re not’ open for business, because of Australia’s foreign investment stance.
“We need a mature discussion, we need an adult discussion, to use some of the terms of my colleagues, about foreign investment, and I’m open to discussing agribusiness and agricultural investment generally, and looking at those thresholds,” Mr Scott said.
“Against the backdrop of the Agricultural White Paper and the review we’re doing about how we can develop northern Australia, and we’re serious about these two areas, we’re going to need foreign investment.”
“It’s timely that, as the PM has indicated, that if we are to negotiate an agreement with China we’re going to have to look at some of the ways we deal with that in relation to state-owned assets in China.
“I think it’s time we had that mature discussion, and I’m open to agricultural partnerships in particular, and I think that’s the key to what I’m saying.”
Many Nationals MPs, including Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, have been vocal opponents of foreign investment proposals in the past, particularly of the sale of southern Queensland’s Cubbie Station to a Chinese-Japanese-Australian consortium, and of American company Archer Daniels Midland’s ultimately failed bid for GrainCorp.
Mr Scott says he’s raised his views with his colleagues in the party room, invoking the legacy of one of the Nationals’ most important historical figures.
“I look back to what John ‘Black Jack’ McEwen did in 1957 [with] Prime Minister Menzies: they opened a trade and commerce treaty with Japan in 1957, which has led to investment in Australia in agriculture, in tourism, in the power sector.
“I think we’ve got to look at what history tells us when it comes to foreign investment and how it can be beneficial to Australia, and we’ve got to make sure that we send a message that we are open for business.”
Courtesy of ABC Rural