7 September 2016
Transcript - #2016122, 2016

Interview with Leon Byner, 5AA

SUBJECTS: Foreign ownership of agricultural land register findings; Senator Dastyari

LEON BYNER:

Let’s talk to Treasurer Scott Morrison. Scott, thanks for joining us today.

TREASURER:

Hi, Leon.

BYNER:

So how helpful is this data released by Treasury in the current climate of the debate we’re having?

TREASURER:

Well, it’s always helpful to have facts to inform debate and these facts show that of the total agricultural land in Australia, some 13.6 per cent of that is owned by foreign interest and in more than 80 per cent of those cases for that land, it is owned in a leasehold form. Now, in South Australia, that percentage on leasehold is even greater – it’s 98 per cent in South Australia. In terms of who the biggest owners are of agricultural land, it’s the United Kingdom and the United States – they make up around two thirds of the foreign holdings of agricultural land in Australia. And that’s followed by the Dutch and the Singaporeans then China comes in at less than half of one per cent of all agricultural land and just over three per cent of foreign investment in agricultural land. They’re just the facts, Leon. You’ve raised things in your introduction which go to other issues about foreign investment and I think they’re all very reasonable issues that the Government must continue to focus on. That’s why when the Government makes decisions on foreign investment, those issues are carefully considered and that’s why we must always retain the right to say no where we think there’s a decision against the national interest.

BYNER:

Just for the record, and I won’t ask you to comment on the claims themselves, but what do you understand is currently up – for example, I’ve spoken to defence experts about this and others, and they talk about the port of Fremantle and the port of Melbourne that are up for sale – are they already up for consideration by yourself or the FIRB? Or do we await who’s really putting up the offers?

TREASURER:

Well, there is a process underway because the Victorian Government is pursuing that sale and they obviously engage with the Foreign Investment Review Board along the way. That’s to endeavour to make the process move as smoothly as possible, but there have been no decisions taken in relation to that because they haven’t yet even formed a position on who their preferred purchaser is. There’s still some time to go on that process and that’s about all that I can say at this point because these things are commercially sensitive. But that is a decision taken by the Victorian Government to sell the port and they will have access to the Federal Government’s Asset Recycling Program which gives them support for additional infrastructure spending by converting assets they currently own into other assets which, down there, we’ve suggested and we’re pleased to support them on the Melbourne Metro Project which is a significant public rail project in Victoria.

BYNER:

Well, as you know, if there are foreign buyers connected to a State that wants to purchase these assets, that in itself is going to be most controversial – given the reaction to the leasing of the port of Darwin.

TREASURER:

Well, first of all, the port of Darwin was not considered by the FIRB. It was not a Federal Government decision. It was a decision of the Northern Territory Government. Now, following the port of Darwin episode, I hadn’t been Treasurer for very long, but I had put in place a new system with all the states and territories that where there were private foreign interests seeking to buy public, State-owned infrastructure then they will be subject to FIRB review. That was not the case before. I made that change and that’s subject to the normal thresholds that apply for other private investors. So there was no special exemption for a private investor in public infrastructure anymore on the basis that it is a state government or territory government owned asset which previously were exempt.

BYNER:

Do you agree with comments by the retiring Governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens, who made the distinction that he didn’t think that it was his view that just buying an existing business wasn’t necessarily the right kind of investment that was great for Australia?

TREASURER:

Well, his point was that when you’re attracting investment capital into Australia, you want it to go into things that are going to boost our productive capacity which creates jobs which expand our capabilities and boost earnings for Australian householders. He’s right about all of those things. But let me take for example what’s happening in two states in New South Wales and Victoria. Where an investment is made into an asset – whether it’s TransGrid in New South Wales which was bought by Canadian interests or what’s happening with the port of Melbourne – that means that resources are then freed up in the public sector to go and invest in the sort of infrastructure Glenn Stevens is talking about. There’s more than one way to achieve this but I think overall that the principle is that we have some $200 billion worth of foreign investment coming into the country every year. That’s incredibly important for our economy. The South Australian Government is as keen as anybody else to attract as much of that foreign investment to South Australia to support the South Australian economy. So it’s incredibly necessary for people’s wellbeing and jobs, but it needs to be done in accordance with our national interest. That’s what the rules are designed to protect.

BYNER:

I just want to go back quickly because I know your time is limited and I appreciate the fact that you’ve come on this morning to explain this, but the note the people got from the Parliamentary Library is pretty stark. It singles out Beijing’s plan to spend billions on infrastructure projects in the region, including northern Australia as an attempt to gain a strategic advantage. So is your Government really alive to this?

TREASURER:

Of course we are, Leon. Of course we are. That’s what our national security agencies are very focused on. When I became Treasurer, I put David Irvine who was the former Head of ASIO and the former Head of ASIS and a former diplomat who worked in China, I put him on the Foreign Investment Review Board. Now, I didn’t do that because I thought he was a great expert in commercial transactions. I did it because I know he, of almost anyone in the country, has the keenest understanding of the sorts of things that you’re talking about. I want to make sure that there are people like him who are part of the process advising me on what is against the national interest. David has been invaluable in that role since he’s served on the Board, along with the other board members, to ensure that we are absolutely alive to the things that you’re talking about.

BYNER:

Just quickly, and I know that you may not be sure as to where as this issue will go, but political donations are an enormous issue. Do you have a particular personal view on whether political parties ought to accept foreign money?

TREASURER:

I’m very open to have the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters look into that and make recommendations. But the Shanghai Sam issue has nothing to do with that. What he has done, and this is not disputed –

BYNER:

Shanghai Sam’ [laughs] Sounds like a movie.

TREASURER:

What he’s done is he’s rung a donor – and it could have been a domestic donor and it would have been just as compromising – but Leon, if you had a debt you wouldn’t just cold call people and say: “Could you pick up this debt for me?” You would only call someone who you had a very deep relationship with who would cover that off for you. So Senator Dastyari has rung this gentleman and he’s asked him to cover off a debt. Now, we know that’s not the first time that’s happened. He’s had legal bills covered on debts before and it goes back to when he was the Secretary of the New South Wales Labor Party and he ensured that Craig Thomson – we all remember Craig Thomson – made sure that his legal debts were covered. So there’s quite a lot of form here and the problem for Bill Shorten is he’s failing the test. He’s trying to saying that it’s about foreign donations. No. No, it’s not, Bill. This is the third most senior Labor member of the Senate. He’s no junior New South Wales Senator – he was on the top of their ticket, for goodness’ sake. He ran Bill Shorten’s campaign bus around the country for eight weeks. This bloke has got up to this and Bill Shorten says it’s ok. Now, if Bill wants to set the bar that low then you can understand frankly what he would do when confronted with these sorts of challenges if, God forbid, he ever were to become Prime Minister.

BYNER:

Can you be certain that there’s none of this kind of behaviour on the other side of politics?

TREASURER:

I’m not aware of any such behaviour when it comes to asking donors to cover personal debts. This is the great distraction that Labor is trying to put out, trying to blur it with issues around foreign donations. This is a very unusual practice, very unusual. I think at a personal level when you reflect on it, I’m just trying to give you an example, if one of your listeners was looking to borrow money, they’d ring a friend. They’d ring someone with whom they had a pretty deep association with. What he can’t explain is the nature of this association. He can’t explain what he was saying and doing up in China, or why he was being so enthusiastic in his pursuit of the independence of Chinese foreign policy with our Secretary of Defence and our Secretary of Foreign Affairs in Estimates. He’s been a pretty busy boy on China and there are some very unexplained factors here. He said it was an error of judgement. Well, the next thing Shanghai Sam needs to do is go. And if he won’t do it, Bill Shorten must make him do it and he’s failing that test right now. He should make sure this is done by the end of the week.

BYNER:

Scott, thanks for joining us. That’s the Treasurer, Scott Morrison.