Tony Abbott’s trip to China has yielded two interesting insights into policy under a Liberal government.

One is a commendable frankness from Abbott about China’s continuing lack of democratic development (and all the braver from Abbott for being said in China). One can only hope he continues to speak truth to the murderous Chinese communist regime once he’s prime minister, rather than, as is the conservative way, talk tough about the Chinese when not in power and then forget all that democracy stuff once in office, as John Howard did.

The other, reflecting the crass populism to which Abbott is prone, and undoubtedly the toxic policy influence of Barnaby Joyce, was to signal a further tightening on Chinese investment in Australia, particularly targeted at state-owned investors.

One wonders if he checked that with Arthur Sinodinos’ “red tape taskforce”. So much for the party of less regulation.

But this week has seem some interesting developments on the issue of Chinese investment elsewhere. In Canada, to be precise.

You may recall that a couple of years ago, mining tax opponents declared Canada was going to eclipse Australia as an attractive destination for mining investment. Abbott and his MPs said the mining tax would be “celebrated” in Canada. Even Canadian ministers declared it a victory for the maple leaf.

How’s that all panning out then? Well, there’s the fact that Canada hasn’t made up any ground in the Behre Dolbear annual risk assessment of mining investment destinations, with Australia maintaining its lead over Canada.

And then there’s actual mining investment, which in Canada has gone from C$62 billion in 2010 to an expected C$86 billion this year (that’s about $82.3 billion). Actual mining investment in Australia has gone from $40 billion in 2010 to $62 billion last year to expected short-term investment of $29 billion in the March quarter of this year alone.

Now some Canadians are starting to wonder about whether they shouldn’t be more like Australia, rather than the other way around.

On Monday night, China’s energy giant, Cnooc, launched a $US15.1 billion bid for Canadian independent energy group Nexen Inc. Nexen, the directors of which support the deal, is a Calgary-based company and has large oil sand and shale gas reserves in western Canada. It also has oil and gas assets the North Sea, Gulf of Mexico and waters off Nigeria.

It is the second largest takeover ever anywhere in the world by a Chinese company. Only the aborted $US18.4 billion tilt at Unocal back in 2005 was bigger. It follows the $US2.1 billion deal last week by Cnooc to buy Opti Canada, a bankrupt oil sands producer, also based in Calgary. Most of that amount went to creditors of Opti.

It also came hours after another Chinese giant, Sinopec, bought 49% of Talisman Energy’s North Sea oil fields for $US1.5 billion.

The deals raise issues of control over a strategic resource, Canada’s huge (and polluting) tar sands in Alberta. It’s an issue the conservative federal government in Canada would rather avoid because it could pit it against the provinces, especially Alberta (where Prime Minister Stephen Harper comes from). Approval for the deals will be required from regulators in Canada, the US and the UK. Cnooc has made several concessions to meet Ottawa’s requirement and Bloomberg reported that Canada’s trade minister, Ed Fast, said he expected “reciprocity” with China in investment and trade.

The deal will test claims that Canada welcomes foreign investment after the rejection of BHP Billiton’s much larger $US40 billion hostile bid for Potash Corporation. Compared with Australia — which has copped not unfair criticism of its “black box” FIRB process — Canada is a minefield for foreign investment. Under Canadian law, foreign investors must show their investments will bring net benefits to the country. Under Australian laws, investors only need to show that their projects will not harm Australia’s national interest. Both requirements are of course deliberately nebulous and subjective — which gives politicians and bureaucrats lots of wriggle room — but the Canadian test is demonstrably harder than Australia’s.

In fact, Canadian business generally wants the country’s approach to foreign investment to be more like Australia’s. Earlier this month the Conference Board of Canada called on the Canadian government to model its foreign investment law on Australia’s. This would involve replacing the need for foreign investors to demonstrate “net benefit” to a less onerous “national interest” requirement. Being partly based in Calgary, the conference board can be expected to lobby hard for the Chinese deals to go ahead.

“We believe that Chinese investments in Canada are in the Canadian national interest. A more explicit regime that reduced arbitrary political interference would be better for Chinese investments in Canada,” according to its report, entitled Fear the Dragon? Chinese Foreign Direct Investment in Canada.

Cnooc’s 2005 bid for Unocal saw uproar in Washington, as politicians from all sides queued to stop the deal on the grounds that US energy assets must not be allowed to be controlled by a company in turn controlled by a bunch of communists. Never mind that most of Unocal’s resources were in Asian oil and gas fields located in and around Thailand.

Nexen isn’t a huge Canadian company; its market value was boosted to about $US9 billion by the bid, but that is well behind Suncor Energy, which is worth $US47 billion or Imperial Oil, which is worth $US37 billion. Like Potash, they are really too big to be bought by a non-Canadian company.

The irony is, after lauding Canada as having got mining investment right compared to the bungling Labor government here, Tony Abbott now wants to lay down exactly the kind of regulatory minefield for Chinese investment about which Canadian miners are complaining.

Peter Fray

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