Joyce's silence is golden in China

Prime Minister Tony Abbott will have to rein in his junior Coalition partner to clinch an all-important FTA agreement with the country's most important trading partner.

Tony Abbott’s sudden change of heart over Chinese state-owned enterprises last week in Shanghai has members of the opposition asking one question — where, in all of this, is Barnaby Joyce?

“If we had put this deal up in government and he had had all those constituencies upset, where's Barnaby Joyce representing their interests?” Labor’s Ed Husic said on the ABC’s Lateline on Friday.

On Sunday, Barnaby inserted himself back into the debate.

”I'm always going to stand up for where I believe our national interest needs protection or where there are sensitivities that should be taken on board," the Agriculture Minister told Sky News.

When Joyce was freelancing over the sale of Cubbie Station to a Chinese-led consortium in 2012, some Liberal members of the Coalition saw it as part of a strategy designed to get him into a lower house seat and a better chance at one day taking over the reins from Warren Truss.

During the election campaign Abbott made it clear that the threshold at which the Foreign Investment Review Board would scrutinise foreign investment in agriculture would be set at $15 million for farms and $53 million for agribusinesses.

The government’s position is, as pilloried by Labor senator Penny Wong on the ABC’s Q&A  program last night, “pro-investment, except for the parts that the National Party don’t like.”

Late last year one senior Liberal party figure dismissed the National Party’s protests as "rhetorical game-playing”, concluding that ultimately it didn’t matter what was said. 

“As someone said to me” said the senior figure of the FTA, “in the end, business will make it happen”.

The Prime Minister made certain the issue was effectively neutralised when, after the election, he appointed the free-trade enthusiast and Liberal MP Andrew Robb as the trade and investment minister – a role traditionally held by the Nationals.

With the Nationals pacified, the trade minister was free to present a unified front to the Chinese.

In November last year, on a trip to China, Robb called for more Chinese investment in Australian agriculture in an interview with Chinese newspaper Economic Daily.

"Australian agriculture is developed, but there are still many farms that require more investment from China" he told the Chinese language newspaper.

Fast forward to today and the National Farmer’s Federation, where Andrew Robb was once the executive director, thinks the Japan FTA fell short of the mark.

“While the agreement has provided some concessions, Australian farmers needed more” the NFF said in a statement. 

“The agreement does not improve — or marginally improves — market access and terms of trade for a number of sectors such as dairy, sugar, grains, pork and rice.”

With the abandonment of his early hardline stance on Chinese state-owned enterprises, the Prime Minister is hoping to finally clinch a deal with China before the state visit of President Xi Jinping in November this year. 

The electorate in general will take some convincing. A Lowy Institute poll conducted last year found that 57 per cent of respondents were concerned about the Chinese buying up Australian assets, despite the fact investment from China has remained relatively small.

But at a press conference in Shanghai last week it sounded almost as if the Prime Minister was talking directly to his National Party colleagues.

"We know that foreign investment can be contentious and we know that it’s easy enough to whip up a storm about selling off the farm -- and depending upon the mood, depending upon the particular example, some people can be furiously in favour of foreign investment and the same person, given a different time and different circumstances can be quite ambivalent about foreign investment," he said.

He might be right. Yet another survey conducted over the last three years by communications consultancy Kreab Gavin Anderson found that people are willing to give Chinese investment a go — so long as potential acquirers play by the rules.

Nearly half of those respondents thought that Chinese companies should be treated no differently from any other foreign investor. The threshold for FIRB scrutiny of Chinese investment should be comparable to other countries.

If the government is able to pull off a deal in November, it would likely go down as one of the biggest achievements of the Abbott government.

The Prime Minister must be hoping that, given these circumstances, the Nationals will remain silent.

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