HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES HANSARD 5 MARCH 2015

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (12:23):  It is fortuitous that I be here to follow the member for Capricornia and to deal with some of the propositions that she has put forward. I say this very clearly to the Nationals and members of the Liberal Party who represent rural and regional seats: it takes more in our electorates than rebadging Labor's spending priorities and spending them as your own.

You never hear government members talk about all the money that was flowing to rural and regional Australia, which now does not flow because of the early decisions of the coalition government. Regional Development Australia funding is the perfect example. I can cite the case in my own electorate of $7 million that should have gone to the refurbishment of the Maitland mall as an example. That was set in stone by the former Labor government. It went through a cabinet process—I was part of that process—and it was determined on the basis of recommendations of the department. Yet it was not honoured by the incoming Abbott government.

Every time Minister Truss approaches the despatch box during question time, much to the ire of the member for Grayndler, the former minister for transport, he cites projects the Nationals or the coalition is rolling out in rural and regional Australia, in terms of roads in particular. These are projects Minister Truss takes credit for, but which were selected, determined and funded by the former, Labor government. The truth is that this coalition government has not spent one additional cent on any of those projects—not one cent which was not already planned to be spent by the former, Labor government, and fully budgeted for by the former, Labor government. So let us not hear the rebadging. Please let us hear the coalition plan for rural and regional Australia. Where is their vision for rural and regional Australia? Where is their strategy to ensure that rural and regional Australia receives a fair amount of attention as compared to our cities when it comes to the priorities of this government?

Let's talk about some of the more bizarre decisions that have been made recently by this coalition government, which run contrary to the interests of rural and regional Australia. Let's go through all those budget measures. There have been cuts in education, cuts in health and GP co-payments, which seem to have gone away for the moment, but we will see where that goes.

I suspect there is another hit coming on patients, which will only be rebranded and will come in a different form. There have been fuel increases on motorists in rural and regional Australia. All these budget measures impact adversely and disproportionately on people living in rural and regional Australia, including those who live in my electorate of Hunter.

Let's take the recent decision or proposals to lower the thresholds of the Foreign Investment Review Board. This is populist politics at its worst. We know that there is concern—particularly in rural and regional Australia—about the growing levels of foreign investment in our agricultural land and our agricultural investment. The secret to this is to build public confidence in foreign investment, because we know from the Greener pastures report—thanks to one of the other side's own members—that by 2050 we will need about $500 billion in agriculture investment to fully capitalise on the opportunities presented by what I call the dining boom. I am talking of the ever-increasing demand for high-quality, clean, green food in Asia.

Let's say, that the Greener pastures report was not all that robust. Let's accept, for a moment, that it will not be $500 billion but it will be $250 billion by 2050. It is axiomatic that, as a small island continent with 23 million people with a limited savings capacity, that most of those funds will, by necessity, come from foreign sources, as has always been the case in Australia. Our country is built on foreign capital, effectively—iconic projects like the Sydney Harbour Bridge being the perfect example.

So we should be welcoming of foreign investment in agriculture and in agricultural business. We desperately need that foreign capital. And we need to put that 'we are open for business' sign out. Otherwise—thanks to the member for Hume, was it?—we will have a shortfall; we will not be in a position to capitalise on those opportunities in Asia. Instead of building public confidence in foreign investment, as we first proposed to do with a register—which would allow people everywhere to see who was investing in what and where, and how much they were investing, so that people could have confidence in the system—those opposite went out and fiddled with the thresholds. They have taken the thresholds from a quarter of a million dollars to $15 million, in the case of agricultural land.

Guess what the relationship is between Upper Hunter and the Minister for Agriculture? They share the area.

Mr McCormack interjecting—

Mr FITZGIBBON:  The Minister for Agriculture is very, very nervous about where Upper Hunter is leading. The parliamentary secretary says, 'Oh, Michael Johnsen will win.' He, for the benefit of those listening, is the National Party candidate. He is also the bloke that has three times run against me and three times lost. As a reward, he is being given a safe state seat, where my very good friend George Souris is retiring. But—guess what, Mr Deputy Speaker—it did not quite turn out that way. It appears that Upper Hunter is not so safe after all. That is why they are spending so much money. That is why they are sending their young guns in to campaign. And that is why Minister Hunt was in Barnaby Joyce's electorate and the electorate of Upper Hunter last week: they are worried.

The Labor Party has an excellent candidate by the name of Martin Rush. He is the Mayor of Muswellbrook and has been since, I think, 2008. He is a champion guy doing good things in his local community.

The National Party are on the run, just like they are on the run right around this country. They are on the run for two reasons. Country Caucus has got them on the run: the Labor Party is putting forward good policies in rural and regional Australia and holding them to account for the way they have walked away from what they would describe as their natural constituencies. And they are on the run due to their own failings and incompetencies.

This is a dysfunctional government. It is having an effect most in rural and regional Australia. It is catching up with the National Party, and I can promise them one thing: we are going to hunt them all the way to the next federal election.

We still do not know what the agribusiness threshold will be, because they have not guesstimated that yet. They have not been able to agree on that. I suspect coalition members are still arguing. The dries in the cabinet want one figure and the more progressive, I will call them—I think they would like that term—want another figure.

So they make the announcement but say: 'Don't worry; we will work out the figure for agribusiness somewhere in the future.' Meanwhile, investors in Asia and elsewhere are saying: 'What the?' They do not know what the rules are. And, by the way, there is no legislation. There is no law. It will be retrospective, though, I am told, when the law comes into this place. But, in the meantime, investors right around the world—in a world where competition for global capital is intense—do not know what the rules are in Australia. So guess what? They are looking at South Africa; they are looking at South America; they are looking at Australia. They all have great potential to provide yields well beyond what an investor might get domestically in, say, China.

They are looking at the three opportunities and they are going: 'Australia—eh-eh.'

Mr Husic:  The hicks are in control.

Mr FITZGIBBON:  'Eh-eh. Australia is no good to me—I don't know what the rules are. The thresholds are ridiculous.' They are saying: 'We've had a look. The government hasn't provided any additional resources to Treasury to deal with this flood of applications Treasury is now going to receive as a result of these threshold reductions, so it is just all too hard. We will go to South America instead.'

I challenge the member for Hume, Angus Taylor, to come in here today on this appropriation debate and tell us what he thinks of the new foreign investment thresholds, as much as we understand them at this stage. He was the co-author of that report that rang the alarm bell which said: 'We must be inviting foreign capital if we are to properly grow our agriculture businesses to fully capitalise on the dining boom and to allow agriculture to drive wealth in this country in the future.' I suspect the member for Hume will not come in, because he absolutely agrees with me.

Those who understand the FIRB process know this: it is just a board. The FIRB is a board designed to build some public confidence in the system, to allow people to understand that it is not just the Treasury dealing with these matters. There is a board of non-salaried people from all walks of life—and I pay tribute to all of them, including Mr Secker, a former member of this place—that is designed to give people some confidence that other people from the community with some expertise have a role to play. But we all know how these boards work. Once a month they get a list of proposals. Treasury says: 'We've got 20 proposals to put before you.' More often than not—in fact, almost all the time—they say: 'We recommend they all be approved.'

It is like going to a council meeting and getting your agenda. Some of us in this place will be familiar with that process. The board rarely challenges Treasury. In any case, well before the board gets its papers, if there is any controversial proposal in there it is already in the newspapers and the Treasurer is already all over it. Ultimately it is the Treasurer who determines these matters if there is any controversy around them whatsoever.

So what is the threshold about? If the Treasurer is concerned about a proposal and if a proposal has sparked concern in Treasury, it does not matter whether it is $1 million dollars or $250 million—the Treasury is on to it, the Treasurer is on to it and the matter will be dealt with appropriately. Hopefully, it will be handled by the Treasurer in a way that maintains and further builds confidence in the system. So the threshold is a stunt. I would not care if it were just a stunt designed to bolster the stocks of a struggling National Party in particular, but it is going to do so much harm.

Mr McCormack:  We are in government! Where are you blokes?

Mr FITZGIBBON:  I am going to take the interjection from the parliamentary secretary opposite. He says: 'We are in government!' This is the point: there is another mob in government, too—it is called the Baird government. It is another coalition government, and guess what? They are up for election on 28 March. That is why at the moment you are seeing extraordinary backdowns in all ranges of public policy. Minister Hunt goes to the minister for agriculture's electorate last Friday and announces he is stopping the clock on the Shenhua coalmining development, after all this time. I invite the minister for agriculture to come in here right now and debate me on these issues. Minister—are you listening, Minister? Come in! Come on down! Let's have a debate on the Shenhua mine. Let's have a debate on foreign investment in agriculture in this country.

Minister Hunt went to the minister's electorate—

Mr McCormack interjecting—

Mr FITZGIBBON:  How much money were you putting on that?

Mr McCormack:  I will back him every time over you!

Mr FITZGIBBON:  Minister Hunt accompanied Minister Joyce to his own electorate and said, after all these months, if not years, of debate on the Shenhua mine, three weeks from the state election: 'We're stopping the clock!' They stopped the clock all right—until 29 March. That is when they have stopped the clock until—29 March. So I appreciate the parliamentary secretary's intervention.

At the moment we are seeing extraordinary admissions of fault and backdowns and stunts from this government for one primary purpose—to save Mike Baird in New South Wales. And we know that Mike Baird—as he knows—that, despite his very significant margin in the Legislative Assembly in New South Wales, is in all sorts of trouble. He is in all sorts of trouble in all sorts of places. None the least—and members need to listen carefully, because they will not believe what I am about to say—not the least in Upper Hunter.


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