TRADE Minister Andrew Robb has engaged in a fiery exchange with controversial radio broadcaster Alan Jones over foreign investment and trade agreements.
Yesterday’s radio interview focused on Mr Jones’ suspicions about escalating Chinese foreign investments in Australian agriculture - especially dairy - and the government’s negotiations on free trade deals.
The Minister hit back with several corrections and introduced key statistics into the terse argument, which largely failed to subdue the determined broadcaster’s attack.
In his introduction, Mr Jones described the senior minister as “a very good human being” but said he had “very deep suspicions about what we are giving away” in terms of trade negotiations in China.
“Some trade experts describe this Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the biggest corporate grab in a generation,” he said.
“Why would we trust you to get this right when you and the government were played for mugs by China only last week over the proposed Australia-China free trade agreement (FTA)?
“China introduces a coal tariff and then last week said we’ll drop them in return for no change to the rules governing Chinese investment in Australian agriculture.
“So the tariffs were just a ploy to get a better deal on agriculture.
“We bent at the knees, folded, fell over; and so now the $248 million limit stands.”
However, Mr Robb said that assertion was “just not correct”.
But Mr Jones demanded the Minister reveal what’s been offered in the China FTA talks, to limit foreign purchases in line with Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) policy.
Mr Robb said he sought “and received” in the Japanese and Korean trade agreements a $15 million limit on investment in agricultural farms and properties and $53 million limit on investment in agribusinesses, before FIRB referral.
“Now that applied in Korea, it applied in Japan, and it’s what’s on the table in the negotiations with China,” he said in reflecting Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s statements at the National Farmers’ Federation Congress in Canberra last week.
However, Mr Jones tried to assert the Minister was being “definitionally dishonest”.
“I’m not saying you’re a dishonest man – but why we are definitionally dishonest?” he said.
“There’s a massive difference between investment and ownership. Three multi-million-dollar mega deals currently in progress involve Chinese government-owned companies.
“In Western Victoria 50 dairy farms have signed individual deals to sell their farms. $400 million, 90,000 cows producing 500 million litres of milk a year. A twelfth of Victoria’s total milk supply - and this is being sold, sold - not investment.”
Mr Robb said he understood that deal was in partnership with a Tasmanian group and there were 4500 dairy farms in Victoria “and we’re talking about 50 of them, right”.
“And the other thing, the most important thing, Alan, is, it’s not that long ago – because we’re only a young country – but (UK group) Vesteys owned half of Australia,” he said.
“Vesteys built the infrastructure in terms of abattoirs, saleyards; the transport arrangements. Now how much does Vesteys own today?
“This is the history of Australia - we’ve relied on foreign investment.”
The interview was further soured when Mr Jones accused the Liberal minister of repeating Labor rhetoric.
“Who feeds you this stuff? You’re talking the same lingo as the Labor Party,” he said.
But Mr Robb retorted, “That’s a cheap way of putting me down”.
“I’ve had 30 years in and around the rural sector and I can say to you the history is we’ve developed agriculture and we’ve developed the rest of the country on the back of waves of foreign investment,” he said.
“Now it was originally the British, then it was the Japanese, then we’ve had a lot of Indo-Asian money coming in.
“But the bulk of the money has come from the United States and it is still by far the biggest investor.”
Mr Robb said the type of investment also varied between foreign partnerships and full ownership, “and it adds value”.
“We’ve got thin capital markets,” he said. “We always have had. (But) all my life I’ve never seen a farm leave Australia.”
The heated conversation also turned to why superannuation funds aren’t investing in Australian farms.
Mr Robb said, “It’s a good question why $1.3 trillion of Australian superannuation money is not being invested”.
“Australians will not invest in agriculture and you know it,” he said.
“There is a big divide between the city and the bush in Australia and people tend to think that there are no prospects in agriculture and it’s true of the superannuation funds.
“Half of them are self-funded superannuation funds which have $600 billion dollars to invest and hardly a cracker goes into agriculture.”
The pair also debated the level of foreign ownership in Australian agriculture and the whereabouts of the foreign investment register, promised two years ago by the ALP and supported by the Coalition.
Mr Robb said according to the Australian Bureau Statistics (2013), 99 per cent of Australian farm businesses are fully Australian owned and just under 90 per cent of farm land is fully Australian owned.
“Let’s get the facts on the table before we frighten everybody,” he said.
But Mr Jones hit back.
“You promised at the last election that you would deliver to us - we are nearly halfway through the cycle - a register of who owns what, so don’t blame me.”
Mr Robb said the register was “very complicated to get - buts is coming”.
“It’s not my area but (I understand) it is 80 per cent finished and the intention is to have it done by Christmas.”
Mr Robb said the local town around Cubbie Station had been dying due to a lack of investment and owing $450 million, before it was bought by a consortium of Japanese and Chinese investors.
He said the consortium “spent a lot of money and the local town is now thriving and there are jobs for Australians”.
“Tell me Alan, if you owned a property and someone came in from the United States or the UK, why should the rest of Australia say to you ‘we are a free country, you are allowed to sell to an American but you can’t to sell to a Chinese’,” he said.