A RACISM row over Australia's trade and investment policies will reignite today when federal Labor tries to ease the Coalition's tough new rules on Chinese, Korean, and Japanese acquisitions of farming land.
Labor will also attempt to abolish the government's special rules for investment in Australian agricultural businesses.
Coalition ministers have accused Labor and unions of running a racist campaign against the China-Australia Free-Trade Agreement, but opposition spokesperson for trade and investment Penny Wong on Friday argued the Abbott/Turnbull governments' foreign investment crackdown discriminates against investors according to their nationality.
Senator Wong challenged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to "stand up for an open economy" by overturning the foreign investment crackdown advocated by Tony Abbott and the Nationals.
"It's an open secret in Canberra that the former prime minister Tony Abbott pushed the new investment restrictions through, despite opposition from his trade and investment minister, his treasurer and his industry minister," Senator Wong said.
Senator Wong said on Monday Labor would attempt to abolish the government's plan to require Asian investors, and those from other countries without Australian trade agreements, to seek permission from the Foreign Investment Review Board for any private investment worth more than $55 million in agricultural business.
Only Americans, Kiwis, and Chileans are exempt from the stringent new rules on investing in local farm-related businesses, which includes much of Australia's food manufacturing industry. The Labor amendments to the government's legislation will also ease the scrutiny for Chinese, Korean and Japanese investors in farming land by lifting the government's proposed threshold of $15 million to $50 million.
Senator Wong said the $50 million level on farming land would bring the rules for north Asian investors into line with the investment rules for Thai and Singaporean investors under the free-trade agreements negotiated by the Howard government.
While the $50 million level championed by Labor is lower than the current FIRB limit of $252 million for foreign investments including sensitive sectors like media, defence businesses or uranium mining, it is still much more stringent than the $1 billion threshold that American, Kiwi and Chilean investors enjoy thanks to their free-trade agreements with Australia.
However, Senator Wong told the Economic and Social Outlook conference in Melbourne on Friday that a Labor government would consider extending the current $1 million FTA threshold to all foreign private investors in non-sensitive industries.
She said there was no policy rationale for imposing investment barriers to agribusiness, which could affect the investment decisions of half of Australia's food manufacturing industry.
"The government's legislation would create the bizarre position where the threshold for foreign investment in sensitive sectors like uranium extraction or defence industries would be five times higher than for food manufacturing," she said.
"Labor will treat agribusiness the same as other non-sensitive sectors of the economy."
NSW Labor senator Sam Dastyari likened the Coalition's stricter controls on foreign investment in the farming industry to the White Australia policy.