I've just written on the widespread antipathy in Indonesia to foreign investment, and how it is colouring the presidential election campaign. I attributed this hostility to the historical experience of colonialism. Now the Lowy Institute's annual poll reminds us that a similar (if less pronounced) aversion also exists in Australia, without the excuse of centuries of foreign domination:

  • 60% of Australians oppose foreign investment in agriculture, ports and airports.
  • Smaller majorities oppose investment in Qantas (51%) and the National Broadband Network (52%).
  • Australians are divided on foreign investment in the resources sector (49% in favour, 48% against).

Will the foreigners do something harmful that Australian capitalists don't do? Do we gaze on green pastures filled with frolicking lambs and get a warm feeling from knowing they are owned by fellow Australians? Do we think foreign investment makes our economy more vulnerable to changes in foreign sentiment? Should we borrow more overseas rather than selling the farm (and the mine)?

The Lowy Poll doesn't shed much light on the deeper motivations behind the opinions. For better or for worse (probably the former), foreign investment policy is not determined by popular poll. But there are complex issues here, not least about whether the foreigners pay a fair share of the costs of running Australia; and whether a dominant investment position might possibly be translated into dominant influence on politics (in the way that the foreign-dominated mining sector managed to persuade the political system that the miners shouldn't pay a resource-rent tax).

What the Lowy Poll reminds us is that there has not been enough public debate to achieve the sort of support that should accompany these important policy choices.

Photo by Flickr user sofakingevil.