“Australia is open for business,” Tony Abbott asserted on election night, suggesting it had been otherwise during Labor’s time in office — when record levels of foreign investment poured into the country, particularly Australia’s mining sector, which four years in a row was rated by independent offshore analysts as the world’s best place for mining investment.
The political point aside, the new Prime Minister is right to stress the importance of foreign investment to Australia. That is why the xenophobia and obscurantism of the National Party on foreign investment is so concerning, especially in relation to investment in agriculture, a non-issue given the level is so low.
Abbott skilfully handled the issue in opposition, allowing the Nationals some leeway on the issue but pulling them up short of placing any actual impediments on investment: instead, there will simply be additional monitoring on the level of investment.
Now, however, the Nationals, with additional seats under their belt after the election, again appear to be pushing against foreign investment. That new Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce is so implacably hostile to foreign investment — and particularly, for whatever reason, investment from Asian countries — is highly problematic.
Let’s be clear: the biggest losers from any restrictions on foreign investment in agriculture will be Australia’s farmers and agricultural companies, the very people Joyce and his colleagues purport to represent.
If anything, the Abbott government should be pushing to make foreign investment in Australia easier, particularly by bringing greater transparency to the Foreign Investment Review Board process and raising the threshold at which investments trigger FIRB consideration. Australia has always needed foreign investment: it is a key to our prosperity. Australia being “open for business” should mean that the Nationals understand that their irrational obsession with the issue has no place at the cabinet table.