Monday, 7 December 2020
Questions to the Speaker
Foreign Investment Reform (Protecting Australia's National Security) Bill 2020, Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Fees Imposition Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading
Before the debate is resumed on this bill, I remind the House that it's been agreed that a general debate be allowed covering this bill and the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Fees Imposition Amendment Bill 2020. The original question was that this bill now be read a second time. To this the honourable member for Rankin moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The honourable member for Kennedy has now moved as an amendment to that amendment that all words after 'whilst' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Kennedy to the amendment moved by the honourable member for Rankin be disagreed to.
Labor supports the Foreign Investment Reform (Protecting Australia's National Security) Bill 2020. I think the member for Rankin is going to speak in support of his amendments. My main issue with this whole area, when we're looking at foreign investment proposals, is that we're talking very much of prospective foreign investment proposals. My concern is that, over the last 30 years, we've seen a whole range of Australian assets privatised—most recently, the port of Darwin, which I've had something to say about in the press. I've called for that sale to be resolved by nationalisation. I think that the port of Darwin should be in the hands of the Australian government. I think that's a sensible thing to do because it protects our sovereign interests. But, of course, over the last few decades, there's been an orgy of privatisation and an orgy of outsourcing of state government assets.
In South Australia, we've seen the privatisation of electricity. We've seen the lease of assets which should be held in government hands, notably the Electricity Trust of South Australia. What we saw there was, first of all, not just privatisation but also the sin of disaggregation, where they split up what was essentially a unit for the creation and distribution of electricity generation—poles and wires. They split it up and sold it off bit by bit because they thought that that would be the way they'd make the most money. In the process of disaggregating it, they wrecked, in my opinion, a system that produced low-cost energy for South Australia. They sold it off bit by bit. The disaggregation is a problem, but the sale itself was a problem.
When it was sold, it was in a very benign international environment. A company from Hong Kong, CK Infrastructure Holdings, bought, in particular, the poles and wires part of the electricity distribution network in South Australia. We now have the situation where Hong Kong is effectively under the control of the People's Republic of China and the companies in that jurisdiction are also under the control of that government. That is undoubtedly a question for that country, but there is the issue that the South Australian electricity network has been sold to a company which has been excluded from participating in the sale and privatisation of other energy assets in this country, notably, the privatisations in New South Wales. So we have the situation where, because a privatisation occurred 30 years ago now, somehow, the ownership arrangements which were allowed at that time are allowed to remain in force. I don't think that's a sensible thing for this country to do. It's certainly not a sensible thing for South Australia.
The privatisation of those assets has been a disaster for other reasons—for economic reasons. A 99-year lease was a particularly poor way of structuring the sale. It was sold at a bargain basement price—many of these electricity assets are sold for bargain basement prices. But it's now also an issue, I think, of national security. These very important assets—the Port of Darwin and, in this case, the electricity grid of South Australia; poles and wires are the spine and architecture of our electricity system in South Australia—are now owned by a foreign company, and one within a very different international environment from which we had when the grid was sold in the 1990s.
When we're looking at these bills, we actually need to have a bit of a think. One of Labor's criticisms is that they've been rushed. We need to have a very close look at what has been sold over the last three decades, because you can't do much without electricity. It's pretty critical to modern life. In my mind it would be best if these assets were held in public hands, particularly at the moment, and that those assets, if not in public hands, were at least in the hands of Australian investors and Australian companies.
With that, I commend the bill to the House.
I would like to thank those members who have contributed to this debate on the Foreign Investment Reform (Protecting Australia's National Security) Bill 2020. This package of bills will make important changes to strengthen Australia's foreign investment review framework, while ensuring that Australia maintains a welcoming environment for investment that is not contrary to our national interests.
These reforms will ensure that from 1 January 2021 Australia's foreign investment review framework is properly equipped to keep pace with emerging risks and global developments. These changes preserve the underlying principles of our system, that Australia welcomes foreign investment for the significant benefits it provides but also ensures that investments are not contrary to the national interest. Australia's foreign investment framework will remain nondiscriminatory and applications will continue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. I commend this bill to the House.
I thank the minister. The original question was that this bill be now read a second time, to which the honourable member for Rankin moved as an amendment that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The honourable member for Kennedy has moved, as an amendment to that amendment, that all words after 'whilst' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Kennedy be disagreed to.