MARIUS BENSON: Now Tony Abbott is today releasing a discussion paper on foreign investment which is expected to propose tightening controls on foreign investors. The paper is expected to reflect concerns, particularly among National Party Coalition members over increasing investment here by China’s state-owned enterprises specifically. The discussion paper is tipped to propose imposing tougher standards on the Foreign Investment Review Board when it considers foreign investment applications. For a Government perspective on that discussion paper, those suggested changes to foreign investment regulations, I’m joined by the Trade Minister Craig Emerson. Craig Emerson, good morning.
CRAIG EMERSON: And a good morning to you, Marius.
BENSON: Now would you accept that there is some genuine concern about foreign investment in Australia? That Australians want to know that it is properly regulated? A discussion paper: a useful document?
EMERSON: I accept that there’s genuine concern, but the role of political parties should be to inform, not to misinform. And the facts are these: that in 1984, 5.9 per cent of Australian agricultural land was foreign-owned. In 2010, that had gone up to 6 per cent. That is an increase of 0.1 percentage points. Barnaby Joyce has described that as an “exponential increase”. And what he’s seeking to do is harvest votes from this by misinforming people, telling them that there’s some sort of crisis going on when in fact the figures testify to the fact that there has been negligible increase and, within that, Chinese foreign ownership is negligible itself. It’s tiny. So they’re reacting to something where they themselves have helped stir up a misinformation, and then say they’re going to fix it.
BENSON: Craig, you’re referring specifically to agricultural land there, though. Obviously foreign investment is much wider than that.
EMERSON: And the concerns that have been whipped up here are about Chinese ownership of agricultural land. Again, Mr Joyce and others have said that Chinese are going to come here, they’re going to buy up our farmland, they’re going to deploy Chinese labour, they’re going to sell the product direct to China, and this is a direct threat to our ability to feed ourselves. This is hysterical nonsense: 70 per cent of Australian agricultural production is exported. But there you go, you’ve got Mr Barnaby Joyce writing the Coalition’s policy on this matter, because why: Mr Abbott actually agrees with Barnaby Joyce on these issues. And that is a defeat for Julie Bishop, it’s a defeat for Andrew Robb, and it’s a defeat for the young Liberals who are more sensible than this - but they’re relegated to the backbench while Barnaby Joyce gets to run amok.
BENSON: Barnaby Joyce, I’ve spoken to about this in the past, and he simply rejects those numbers that you’ve used: the 5.9 per cent of agricultural land in foreign hands in ’84, and now it’s only 6 per cent. He said it’s not true.
EMERSON: That’s because he doesn’t want it to be true. These are official figures. What’s Barnaby Joyce think: that the Australia Bureau of Statistics is part of a conspiratorial One
World Government? I mean, this is the sort of stuff you get from Barnaby Joyce. The official statistics he spurns because he wants people to believe otherwise. And when we come to state-owned enterprises, Marius, the Foreign Investment Review Board screening threshold is actually zero. Now how do you lower it below zero? It’s got me baffled. So what they’re actually saying is that private foreign investment, where the threshold currently is $244 million, they’d drop that to $15 million. But you hear Senator Bill Heffernan saying that he’s not concerned about private foreign investment, just state-owned enterprise investment …
BENSON: I don’t want to get lost in numbers, but when you said that …
EMERSON: … He actually described as “bullshit” that whole thing.
BENSON: Right. I don’t want to get lost in numbers, but when you say the threshold for FIRB scrutiny is zero, isn’t it $244 million?
EMERSON: As I just explained, for state-owned enterprises it is zero. And you yourself have fallen victim to the propaganda from Barnaby Joyce. For state-owned enterprises it is zero. For private investors it is $244 million. I don’t know how you drop a zero threshold below zero. What are they going to make it: negative $50 million? These are crazy people.
BENSON: Okay. Can I just ask you: just in broad terms, are you saying the system works; the current system works? There’s no need for any change to foreign investment laws?
EMERSON: We’ve already articulated the public interest test that is applied by the Foreign Investment Review Board. We’ve always been open to, and have actually released a paper ourselves, or said we will release a paper, on making sure that everyone knows exactly what is foreign-owned through a national land register. That’s fine. That’s actually informing people. But what the Coalition is seeking to do is misinform them, prey on their fears, and then send a very clear signal to China in particular, that foreign investment from China is unwelcome. When Mr Abbott was over in China, he was saying ‘oh, look, we’re going to accelerate negotiations for a free trade agreement’. This would kill a free trade agreement stone dead. He knows it, but he just wants to position himself where he is a great guy; he’s going to complete the FTA negotiations knowing full well that this will kill it. It is irresponsible behaviour on the part of Mr Abbott and Mr Barnaby Joyce. It is just economic nationalism, or worse, economic Hansonism.
BENSON: Craig Emerson, thank you very much.
EMERSON: Thanks very much.
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