Having Australian ports in foreign hands could harm our long-term security

Asciano’s board has given its approval for a US$9 billion takeover by Brookfield. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

The change to foreign ownership of Australian companies and critical infrastructure continues with the takeover offer for rail and ports operator Asciano from Brookfield Infrastructure Partners, a Bermuda-based company listed on the New York and Toronto stock exchanges.

The offer, which values Asciano at US$9 billion, is a part cash (75%) and part scrip (25%) bid. While it has the blessing of the Asciano board, the offer is yet to be approved by both the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and Foreign Investment Review Board.

Australians appear relatively unconcerned about major transfers of ownership such as these - yet it is at odds with the assiduous strategies of larger economies such as the United States and China, to secure their supply chains.

Asciano was a spinoff of the Toll Group, formed in 2007. It has a rail division, Pacific National, acquired by Toll from the federal government-owned National Rail Corporation in 2002, and a port and logistics division, Patrick Terminals and Logistics.

Patrick is a long-established Australian company. It was originally started by the owner of coastal trading vessels before morphing into a number of other shipping and stevedoring companies. Although known for its role in the 1998 waterfront dispute, it has since become a leader in the stevedoring sector. It was acquired by Toll in 2006.

The Brookfield name is not completely unknown in Australia. The company already owns Brookfield Rail – a 5,500 km rail network in Western Australia – and the Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal in Queensland.

Brookfield’s interest in Asciano is partly driven by a goal of positioning itself for the mooted sale of the federal government-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation, the owners of 8,500 kilometres of critical rail track across Australia.

If the Asciano sale goes ahead, approximately 95% of all Australian containerised imports and exports will be handled by foreign-owned companies including Dubai Ports World (based in the United Arab Emirates), Hutchinson Port Holdings (based in Hong Kong) and International Container Terminal Services Inc. (based in the Philippines), with only the Adelaide container terminal still in Australian hands.

On the other hand, a potential benefit for Australia is that Brookfield has indicated it will utilise Patrick’s world-leading expertise in automation across stevedoring operations it owns in other countries.

The general public may not be fully aware of the extent and ramifications of this shift in ownership in businesses critical to Australian trade. The main driver for overseas owners is to maximise return on the considerable investment they have made to acquire the assets, with in some instances, applying creative means of getting around Australian laws and regulations. For example, the recent Senate Committee inquiry into tax avoidance highlights just one of the issues, that of tax avoidance by overseas companies operating in Australia.

Many countries are grappling with how to manage the increase in foreign ownership, but in some cases public opposition has prevented a takeover going ahead. In 2006, a number of North American container terminals and logistic centres were up for sale but Dubai Ports World, one of the bidders whose ownership is concentrated in the Middle East, was ultimately excluded from the process due to the public’s fear that such a sale would compromise port security.

The US is also fiercely protective of its coastal shipping regime where all coastal cargo in North America has to be shipped by American owned and crewed vessels. This is in stark contrast to the current Australian coastal trading policy where increasing amounts of cargo on the Australian coast are being carried by foreign flagged and crewed vessels.

China is taking the security of their supply chains even further. Chinese companies, with the help of the government, are in the process of acquiring interests in ports and port-related businesses in the Indo-Pacific, East Africa and the Mediterranean along the shipping routes from China to Europe, the so-called “Maritime Silk Road”.

This project is part of the “One Belt, One Road” policy, which is an undertaking to secure China’s supply lines to and from Europe. It also includes a land-based route the “Silk Road Economic Belt”, which more or less runs along the centuries old former Silk Road and is developed to allow China’s landlocked western provinces to access the markets of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The other aim of this initiative (backed by a US$40 billion fund) is to shape China’s regional periphery by exercising economic, cultural and political influence.

Australia could learn something from other economies – to carefully assess the long-term harms and benefits of allowing the sale of critical assets.