Senate debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


Economics References Committee; Government Response to Report

4:06 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

As to my motion to take note of the report of the Senate Economics References Committee, Greenfields, cash cows and regulation of foreign investment in Australia, I understand that Senator Whish-Wilson would like to speak to it.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I call Senator Whish-Wilson.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Yes, I'd like to take note of this very important report, and I know that you personally, Acting Deputy President O'Neill, were involved in this inquiry. The Greens initiated this inquiry in late 2019. Foreign investment in this country is a significant matter of public interest. Everywhere I go in my state of Tasmania, I've got someone in my ear complaining about foreign investment. Now, I know this country was built on foreign investment and will continue to be built on foreign investment, and it's very important that we get the settings in our foreign investment laws right—especially our FIRB, or Foreign Investment Review Board, approvals. We're never going to have public confidence in our laws while they fail to operate transparently and effectively and give the public confidence.

I want to start by thanking the Senate Economics References Committee for their great work and for an excellent report—particularly Fiona Allen, who wrote this report. There's a lot of good information in the report. In the report, some of the language is quite scathing towards the Treasury and on the lack of cooperation by some in the government in relation to this inquiry. I think it's quite concerning that, in an area like foreign investment, around trade and treaties, we're not getting full cooperation from the government.

The Greens have made substantial contributions throughout the free trade debate in this place in the recent decade, especially around a number of free trade deals that were being signed by the Abbott government and the Morrison government, because we were concerned about limits on our sovereignty, especially as a parliament. It turns out that some of the required changes to our foreign investment approvals are hamstrung by the myriad free trade deals, or so-called free trade deals, that we've signed with these countries.

While I think the report has some excellent content, and we took significant witness evidence and had some fantastic case studies—I know you, Acting Deputy President O'Neill, spent a lot of time looking at the acquisition of Alinta, and certainly three out of the six case studies the committee looked at were Tasmanian acquisitions, and I was very pleased with the way that was handled—the Greens did make substantial additional comments to the report. We made not a dissenting report but additional comments, which we called 'Still in the dark'. There are four key recommendations we would have liked to have seen the committee make, and the Greens will continue to push for those recommendations.

The first was that there's no point in having conditions that are voluntary. When a foreign investor signs up to buy an Australian asset—especially an iconic Australian business—and makes undertakings at the time to the Treasurer and by default to the Australian people, that investor should be required to meet those undertakings. This is especially so in the case of Tasmania's Van Dairy, the country's most iconic dairy. A foreign investor outbid a local consortium by making a series of undertakings that were never met. That's got to end, especially if we want to re-establish public confidence in our foreign investment laws.

We also believe that there is no reason that the Treasurer should not publish their reasons—unless there's a national security issue—for giving foreign investment approval. So we have made a second recommendation there that exemption certificates be made public. There is no reason at all, considering what a massive matter of public interest it is, why that kind of information is not required.

We also believe that money laundering is a significant problem in this country. Australians, whether they're buying rural properties or investment properties, are often competing against money launderers and the proceeds from illicit crime. One of the case studies the committee looked at was front-page news of Mr Peter Dutton, in the other place, talking about how he busted a Chinese money-laundering syndicate. It was lucky for us that the Chinese government gave us that information, otherwise we'd never have known that it had occurred. We just don't have the powers or the resources in place to detect illicit funds. We believe that needs to change. We need a beneficial ownership register so that we know who owns these businesses and who's buying what. And we need to remove exemptions under anti-money-laundering laws that allow service providers to get away with not providing monitoring requirements to regulators.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.