The people should decide if foreigners can have our farms
Is foreign investment bad? No doubt your view will depend on whether you believe countries have a sovereign right to promote their national interest or whether you are a free market fundamentalist.
As always, the free market fundamentalists get overly excited and try to stifle debate on the issue. The problem with free market fundamentalists is that they are intolerant of other people’s views and think they have a divine right to tell political parties and the rest of us what to do.
Even within the two major political parties you have a division between the free market fundamentalists and those with the common sense to see the broader picture. There’s nothing wrong with differences of opinion even within the same political party.
If the left and right of the Labor Party can have a difference of opinion on asylum seekers and uranium mining, then the Coalition can certainly have a difference of opinion on foreign investment. There’s nothing wrong with Doug Cameron having a difference of opinion with Chris Bowen and there’s nothing wrong with coalition politicians having a debate on foreign investment.
And there’s nothing wrong with those debates having a public dimension. Voters are entitled to know if their politicians have swallowed an economics textbook or if they are in touch with the heart and soul of Australia where small businesses, farmers and consumers are suffering at the hands of free market theories.
All politicians should spend some time living in regional Australia or operating a business that supplies to Coles and Woolworths. Then they may realise that swallowing an economics textbook to become a free market fundamentalist is no substitute for understanding how small businesses, farmers and consumers are getting ripped off.
We want a competition of ideas and not a monopoly of free market fundamentalism. Monopolies are not in the national interest and free market theories are one-sided, typically in favour of the big end of town.
Having a competition of ideas is not only exciting, but it helps identify the best possible policy position which may be a collection of different ideas generated from the debate.
Also, let’s be clear that a difference of opinion is perfectly fine in a democracy. The irony is that in some of the countries seeking to invest in Australia it’s not acceptable to have a difference of opinion. Here in Australia we can have a debate about foreign investment, but in other countries Australians either can’t invest or they can only do so in a limited way.
Aren’t we lucky in Australia to be able to say how much foreign investment we want? The problem is that free market fundamentalists want a completely open door policy on foreign investment. Sure they talk about a “national interest” test, but in their minds all foreign investment is basically in the national interest.
So like any legal term the term “national interest” can be conveniently, or perhaps cynically, defined to mean different things to different people. That’s why we need clarity as to what the national interest really means. And we can’t leave it to the Federal Treasury or the Foreign Investment Review Board officials as too many of them are just free market fundamentalists.
We need Treasury and the Foreign Investment Review Board officials who can relate to the real world and people in voterland. How many Treasury or the Foreign Investment Review Board officials have run a small business or a farm? How many of those officials have worked or want to work for those big of town companies that want more foreign investment?
That’s why the Foreign Investment Review Board needs to be made up of a wide variety of people with diverse views. How else can the Board determine what is in the national interest? The national interest is and should always be a collection of perspectives and views about the future direction of the nation.
People from diverse walks of life are the ones best placed to articulate where Australia should be heading as a nation. We need the Foreign Investment Review Board to have representatives from the indigenous community, small business, the farming sector and regional Australia. Yes, we also need the big end of town representatives and the technocrats but their limited and often self serving views need to be balanced by real voterland experience.
Now, before anyone gets too excited and thinks that we should be advocating for less foreign investment, it’s important to remember that apart from the indigenous community and those born here, Australia is made up of foreign investors.
Foreign investors are all those who come to Australian and invest money, work here and pay taxes locally. Good foreign investors are those that give back to Australia and follow our laws and support our workers and protect our environment.
Foreign investment is good when it promotes or increases the welfare and interests of all Australians. Now, not all foreign investors do the right thing and some foreign investors are just a front for another country. There are particular dangers where another country starts buying up Australian land.
Investment by entities controlled by foreign countries raise security issues and, more dangerously, may not directly benefit Australians or may compromise our position on international issues. It’s a real challenge for an Australian government to reflect on the human rights record of another country that has invested directly or indirectly in Australia.
Then there are the practical questions to be asked. What if another country buys land in Australian to grow food to take back to its country to feed its population? If there’s no sale of the food in Australia then is any tax payable in Australia? What if the citizens of that other country are given Australian visas to farm the land and are paid money through offshore bank accounts in banks owned by the other country. What if the farm is supplied with machinery made in the other country? What does Australia get from that type of foreign investment?
Even before we have a debate about the right type of foreign investment we need to have the full picture regarding foreign investment in Australia. In particular, we need full transparency on the level of foreign investment that’s taking place in Australia. There’s nothing wrong with full transparency, unless of course someone has something to hide.
Now, since we would not expect anyone to have anything to hide we should all be able to agree on having a comprehensive register of foreign investment in Australia. The register needs to be public and kept up to date in the same way that the State and Territory registers of land titles are public and updated every time land changes hands. Australia is an open society and there should be no secrets regarding land ownership. Surely knowing who owns Australian land is in Australia’s national interest!
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