This column will appear fortnightly on The Interpreter. 

National security 

If one thing is clear from the foreign investment debate after the rejection of Chinese bids for NSW power distributor Ausgrid it is that this issue can’t be treated like an 'on water matter'. That’s the phrase Treasurer Scott Morrison popularised in his old job as immigration minister when refusing to talk about the operational details of turning back of asylum seeker boats to Indonesia.  The sheer weight of money made from China by some of the Australia’s richest people from mining to property means Morrison’s old pull down the shutters approach can’t apply to the sudden sea change in what Chinese investment is now acceptable. But more significantly, two of the country’s top security strategists and protagonists in the China debate are both calling for more openness about the reasons for national security-based foreign investment decisions. Read the Australian Security Policy Institute’s Peter Jennings here and listen to Australian National University’s Hugh White on Radio National Saturday Extra here. When these security insiders want the public brought more into the discussion, Morrison’s comment at his press conference that he was the only person present cleared to know what was going on looks out of the money.

Refugees

 And on the subject of on water matters, 12 August may well be the day the ground shifted under 15 years of divisive and deadly debate about asylum seeker boats. That was the day an unusually introspective former prime minister Tony Abbott conceded in a speech he had been wrong to destroy the then Labor government’s proposed Malaysia refugee swap deal when he was the opposition leader. But on the same day in a joint op-ed piece four of the country’s highest profile advocates of the refugee cause – Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, Robert Manne, and John Menadue (again on his own blog separately here) – supported  the controversial, John Howard-era policy of turning back boats to Indonesia. The plan to swap asylum seekers for official refugees from Malaysia arose from the Houston report which, while dated, is still a good place to start charting a way through this mess. Abbott's mea culpa on the swap deal just as the Brennan group tells the liberal left the Australian community wants the security of turnbacks has paved the way for a new approach. That would see more regional cooperation, the resettlement in Australia of some people from the troubled and costly Manus Island centre in Papua New Guinea and less political sparring over firm action to deter the people traffickers.

Going abroad

Despite Chinese investment into Australia grabbing all the headlines, there has been a flood of new research on that other sort of foreign money – outbound investment.  This is timely given how returns from offshore investment may play a greater role in national wealth given slower growth at home. It also raises questions about data collection and aid priorities under commercial diplomacy. The latest findings from the third International Business Survey run by Austrade, the Export Council of Australia and the Export Finance Insurance Corporation shows the most popular markets for international business are the US, China, New Zealand and the UK. But the countries with the best growth potential are China, US, India, UK and Indonesia. This survey is now a bountiful source of information about how Australian business sees the world. It follows this other very useful Austrade work which goes beyond Australian Bureau of Statistics numbers on offshore investment by looking at the results of 2000 companies. And rounding this out Ian Satchwell at the UWA/Curtin Centre for Exploration Targeting says in this study that government data doesn’t properly capture the scale of Australian mining interests abroad particularly in the equipment, technology and services area. He says these METS businesses are more resilient amid the commodities bust. And he says better understanding of this mining company global reach would help inform commercial diplomacy activity in countries needing help with sustainable mining and better governance.

Bougainville

Resource management now looks set to be the key to a peaceful self-determination vote in this province which has been estranged from PNG over three decades. Rio Tinto and PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill have injected new tension into the vote with Rio exiting the Panguna copper mine and O’Neill possibly undermining the prospect of it being revived under a new government. Australia will inevitably carry the can for a failed state if Bougainville tries to break away but can’t reap the benefits of its most valuable resource.  Dan Flitton reports Bougainville rebels are already demanding Australia pay the bill for remediation work for which Rio is refusing to take responsibility. O’Neill’s rhetoric about giving former Rio shares to landowners rather than a future Bougainville government is ironic given the tensions over paying LNG royalties to landholders closer to Port Moresby, including from Exxon.

Stepping up

Foreign minister Julie Bishop has been rattling the tin with business ever since she decided to make corporate participation a hallmark of her new commercial diplomacy. Now we have a scoreboard of sorts with the first round of joint government-business investments under the Business Partnerships Platform. Business has invested $10.2 million alongside $3.8 million from the government aid program in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Myanmar, Vietnam, Pakistan, Nepal and Kenya.  Look forward to some nice compliments from the foreign minister for Cotton Australia, Mastercard, Unilever, Base Titanium, Cotton On, Digicel, Pou Chen Group, TPS Food and Intrepid Group.

Photo courtesy of Ausgrid