China a Tough Sell at Home for the Man Touting Australia Abroad

  • Minister criticizes misinformation regarding foreign investors
  • Tougher rules mean more transparency, not protectionism: Ciobo

The man who’s just been tasked with selling Australia to China has brushed off claims that his own government is making that job harder.

Australian Trade Minister Steve Ciobo says the greater challenge is fending off misinformation and bad perceptions about the levels of Chinese investment in his home nation. That’s despite the government toughening rules for Chinese investors since coming to power in 2013 and cracking down on home sales to foreigners amid voter concern that such buyers are driving up local prices.

“Frankly there has been too much misinformation in terms of foreign investment into Australia,” said Ciobo, who took control of the portfolio less than two months ago. “Around the world you see domestic populations often push back against foreign investment. Australia is not unique.”

Assigned by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to make headway on free-trade deals, Ciobo’s also seeking to change negative attitudes toward foreign investment as Australia courts offshore dollars amid a waning mining boom. While government data show China accounted for just over 4 percent of foreign purchases at the end of 2014, surveys have shown that most Australians think authorities allow too much investment from China.

“Any concerns that people harbor can be countered by factual information,” Ciobo said by phone from Sydney. “Part of the responsibility for that falls onto my shoulders.”

Spy Boss

It seems not only voters are concerned. A former director general of the nation’s spy agency now sits on the Foreign Investment Review Board to advise on security issues, while the government has introduced a register of who owns the country’s farms and cut the screening threshold for agricultural land sales to A$15 million ($11.4 million).

“We need to delineate between transparency and protectionism,” Ciobo said. “Having a robust framework that provides transparency is positive. Foreign investors can know that they’re going to be investing into a market that’s stable and got good governance and provides certainty.”

Australia announced earlier this month it will step up scrutiny of foreign investment in state-owned infrastructure after a strategic port used by the U.S. military was leased to a Chinese company. FIRB will now study all critical infrastructure asset sales by state and territory governments including airports, ports, telecommunications and utilities.

Concerns Unfounded

The leasing of Port of Darwin to Landbridge Group, which operates a shipping facility in Shandong province, had raised concerns that the Australian military and its allies could be blocked from access.

“The Australian government reserves the right in extreme circumstances to have access to infrastructure like that,” said Ciobo. "So a lot of concerns that are expressed are, frankly, unfounded.”

Ciobo is aware that Australia faces a delicate balancing act in maintaining close relations with its main ally the U.S. while encouraging investment from China.

“Australia has a strong track record of being a good trader and friend to the U.S., to Japan and to China,” Ciobo said. “Notwithstanding there is tension on occasion between those interests, especially with respect to the Pacific, the fact is Australia appropriately and maturely engages with its partners on all these issues.”

Special Report: China's Investment in Australia

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.