The Australian’s Jennifer Hewett has pretty much had the field to herself on the question of Foreign Investment Review Board deliberations about the current deluge of Chinese government investments in Australian resource plays.

And one of the reasons The AFR and others have been underplaying the story is that the process is so lacking in transparency.

When it comes to foreign investment, Australian Treasurers get to play God and the deliberations of the FIRB remain shrouded in mystery.

Wayne Swan delivered what was supposedly a big speech about Chinese investment on Friday and The Australian’s Matthew Stevens opened his Saturday column with the following:

Wayne Swan yesterday delivered a defining message to China Inc that the federal Government would block moves to take control of Australian resources companies or projects.

Yet Fairfax’s Scott Murdoch told Sky Business Channel’s Business View program on Saturday morning that Swan’s people had “oversold” the actual speech, which said nothing of the sort.

The Australian editorialised on the subject today, including this line:

So far, the Rudd Government is yet to reject a proposal from a Chinese company, and it should only do so, as with proposals from any nation, for serious reasons to protect the national interest.

Yet Jennifer Hewett reported on Saturday about one proposed Chinese takeover bid which was limited to a 49.9% stake by Swan. Surely that’s getting close to a rejection. Is anyone else confused?

Disclosure of individual approvals would clear this up once and for all yet Swan’s speech on Friday included the following defence of the present secretive approach:

Misperceptions will arise in this debate when participants tend to seize on individual cases as being somehow emblematic of a broader policy approach.

But all of us in this room know that each investment proposal tends to have its unique circumstances.

It’s why, despite invitations to go into the specifics of each case before me, I have instead focused on communicating the principles governing our consideration of the national interest.

Swan also claimed that Labor’s approach is identical to the Howard Government and that there is no special treatment of China even though Chinese applications have risen from $10 billion a year in 2005-06 and 2006-07, to almost $30 billion over the past seven months.

Given that China is still a totalitarian state that does things like supply arms to Robert Mugabe, surely the public has a right to be told about these 20-plus Chinese investments worth almost $30 billion that Swan has approved since becoming Treasurer.

At the moment we still don’t know if there is any such thing as a Chinese Communist takeover that Wayne Swan would reject. He told Friday’s audience that he’s approved one every 9 days since becoming Treasurer.

Given that Chinese carbon emissions are the greatest threat to the Barrier Reef and no Australian company can make such investments in China, surely it’s time to take a rain check on all this and at least disclose what is being approved.

· Check out this growing list of foreign government investments in Australia

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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