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Foreign Investment and the Coalition With the National Party

Foreign investment has been in the media a lot recently. Increased talk about foreign investment as part of the Australian political discourse has amped up over the last few years in particular with reports of particularly Chinese-based companies buying up farmland, chiefly across New South Wales. It’s prompted raised concerns from some in Australian politics. The interesting thing is that most of the questioning of foreign investment in Australia, again mostly in relation to farmland has come from the conservative side of politics. What is not so surprising  is that most of the scepticism around foreigners buying up and investing in our country from the right side of politics has come from the National Party, the party traditionally of the farmers.

But what is very interesting about this and different from previous times is the willingness of the National Party’s major coalition partner, the Liberal Party to indulge the National’s in the debate with a proposal to examine more deeply, at a lower threshold, more of the proposed investments of companies from outside of Australia.

There’s been much mixed messaging from the Coalition, from National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce openly questioning the appropriateness of too much foreign investment at any opportunity, to Tony Abbott in China appearing to talk down to China about their investing in Australia whilst overseas as a guest in their country. Then just in the last week or so we had Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott both talking down the prospects of a change in foreign investment rules and scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board.

Then today, flanked by Joe Hockey and Leader of the Nationals, Warren Truss, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announced a discussion paper which flags a lowering of the purchase price of agricultural land and businesses at which the Foreign Investment Review Board will examine purchases.

The paper proposes that the FIRB look at purchases of agricultural land valued at over $15 million dollars and purchases by foreign companies of agriculture businesses valued at $53 million. This is way down from the current threshold at which injections of funds of $214 million and over are examined by the review board.

The change in policy has copped criticism from both sides of politics, with the ALP jumping at the chance to have a dig at the party of the free market for wanting to lower the scrutiny threshold.

But there’s also been criticism from their own side of politics, with not just conflicting words in the lead-up to today’s decision from Liberal and National Party politicians, but also from former Coalition MP Peter Reith who launched an attack on Twitter today. Mr Reith in comments today on social media said that the move was “crazy, stupid politics.”

Reith also said that the decision “is just a quick fix to satisfy the Nats, but which will come back to bite the national interest”. Peter Reith, in saying this is not far from the truth, perhaps even spot on with his comments.

The Nationals, in an incoming Coalition Government, which now appears a certainty, would have much higher influence within the joint party-room than they do at present in the current parliament. So this announcement today can easily be seen as a move to placate the National Party ahead of the next election. Tony Abbott and the Opposition leadership undoubtedly realise there will be much more competition of ideas and much more competitive and vigorous debate from two contradictory standpoints within the Coalition caucus.

But what about the decision itself and what Tony Abbott says it will mean for the future of foreign investment in Australia?

Well, for his part Mr Abbott says he wants to “make it absolutely crystal clear that the Coalition unambiguously supports foreign investment in Australia.” Further, he says “we need it, we want it, it is essential for our continued national prosperity.” He also said, “what’s very important though is that the public have confidence that the foreign investment we need and want is in Australia’s national interest.”

Well, it seems pretty ambiguous the level of support there is on one side of the Coalition for further foreign investment in Australia. The Liberal Party are undoubtedly all for it, with the current level of examination likely deemed more than sufficient, perhaps too much for a number in the Liberal and National Party room. But the National Party, particularly given the words of its loudest member, Senator Barnaby Joyce, is certainly far from sure about people from overseas investing in Australia.

The Coalition for its part says that the move is all about increased “scrutiny” of foreign investment decisions as they relate to agricultural land. But this standpoint, is actually to be taken as read and believed, has unintended consequences at best.

If it’s just about a ramped up level of scrutiny in foreign investment and every investment decision that applies to this lower threshold is given the tick of approval, then there’s just unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape for inevitable decisions.

But more likely, with the same “national interest” test applying, albeit at a lower monetary level, then smaller purchase decisions, much smaller ones in fact, will be denied if the national interest test requirements are not met.

Could this and other recent decisions and thought bubbles or proposals of a similar protectionist nature be a sign of things to come?

Australia: the World’s Value-Added Foodbowl?

Australia, way back over 200 years ago from the time of the First Fleet literally grew as a nation “on the sheep’s back”. As a nation Australia began to grow a broader agriculture sector which included a diverse combination of crops across particularly along the length of the eastern mainland states of Queensland, New South Whales and Victoria. That sector also included other animals in addition to sheep, with cattle and dairy farming playing a crucial role in the early economy.

Indeed agriculture does still play a crucial role in our economy albeit a much diminished one in recent decades with our comparative standing in various exports dropping markedly in some cases.

In the global community Australia is among the biggest exporters in the world of wheat, beef, wool and dairy and our three biggest exports are grain/oilseeds, meat and dairy that has obviously been the case for a prolonged period of time, given the industries on which Australia established itself as a fledgling colony and then nation state in the 1900s.

Agriculture in Australia now sits at only a 3% share of GDP in itself and last night Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a speech to the Global Foundation conference in Melbourne where Ms Gillard said she saw Australia becoming  a foodbowl power, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, where a rapidly growing population needs increasing access to a variety of different food imports.

The Prime Minister in her speech last night said that Australia should harness our potential in agriculture, like we did in the past and like the mining sector is now harnessing the potential of our vast mineral wealth.

There is certainly a space for Australia to grow its agriculture sector again, particularly when faced with an economy that at present is powering along on resources which are finite, but the way we do it and the markets and niches we seek to develop as a nation are a lot more intricate than just producing and distributing food across our region and the world.

Prime Minister Gillard in her speech to the foundation did acknowledge that Australia would have to focus its efforts, for the most part, on exporting food products which are value-added, rather than simply trying to up exports of foods that have not undergone the value-adding process.

Australia as a nation simply cannot compete with nations in the region on many basic fruits and vegetables which can be produced in similar climates around our region with much lower input and final product costs than we can achieve in Australia.

We would also tend to be seeking more niche and higher-end markets with our value-added production, thereby in a way limiting just how much we can grow the sector, but still an improvement.

We would have to focus on sending more goods from Australia to countries in our region like China, which is booming and will have a bigger middle class market, as well as countries like South Korea and Japan, even though the latter continues to struggle with economic woes both prior to and exacerbated by the horrific earthquake and tsunami event that destroyed so many lives and areas of the economy with it.

Far from just focusing on Asia, there is huge potential for our food exports to go elsewhere, particularly to the United States of America and Europe in a bigger way than at present and that is being worked on at present in a fairly big, if little discussed way.

There is also huge potential to continue to expand the market for our top class wine, with very few countries in the world producing truly exceptional wines, making this market a great hope for Australian producers. This market could be expanded and is beginning to be delivered to Asia and for that to continue would be a massive boon for the economy.

In a way, it seems that the speech the PM gave last night was a subtle way of saying, “hey, here’s a way that we can keep the decline of manufacturing somewhat at bay if we do more food processing in Australia”.

If we add the processing of food products to the agriculture sector of the Australian economy, we suddenly get a sector that is approximately 12% of Gross Domestic Product, a significant sector by any measure when the services sector takes up over 2/3 of the overall national economy on its own.

So Australia can definitely look to becoming a major food exporter to both the region and the globe. There are various challenges, not the least of which is a water shortage along the Murray-Darling Basin food bowl and this will mean that the challenge to grow our food exports will be a medium to long-term effort, rather than a rapid expansion, which would be difficult in itself anyway even if external factors didn’t exist.

The vision is there, but helping to move the idea to a reality will be a long and enduring process that will require the political will of governments of both political stripes to oversee its development.

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