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Ex-ASIO chief to beef up Foreign Investment Review Board’s national security credentials

David Irvine will bring his knowledge of China and his experience as a former ASIO head to the Foreign Investment Review Board. Julian Smith/AAP

Former ASIO director-general David Irvine has been appointed to the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB), in a move seen to strengthen scrutiny of Chinese bids for key investments of potential security and strategic importance.

Announcing the appointment of Irvine and also former managing director of Rio Tinto Australia, David Peever, Treasurer Scott Morrison said each had “a deep knowledge and experience of our region from both a national security and commercial perspective”.

Morrison said on Friday: “In the years ahead it will be increasingly important for FIRB to not only have the commercial expertise and background to deal with complex commercial transactions, but to also have an even greater understanding of the broader strategic issues, including national security issues, that are essential to protect our national interest.

"The appointments of Mr Irvine and Mr Peever will bring significant strategic national interest and national security expertise to FIRB”.

The appointments come after controversy about the long-term lease to a Chinese group of the Port of Darwin.

The 99-year lease, which has caused tension with the Americans, particularity because they were not forewarned, did not have to go for FIRB examination because it was granted by the Northern Territory government, although in fact it was looked at by FIRB. It was scrutinised by Defence and ASIO, which did not have concerns, and it has been strongly defended by the secretary of the Defence department, Dennis Richardson, as not being a security problem.

Sales of infrastructure by states and territories are not required to be submitted to the FIRB. But in the wake of the Port of Darwin lease, Morrison opened talks with states and territories to ensure transactions involving critical infrastructure are fully scrutinised.

Recently the Chinese were unsuccessful in a bid for the huge Kidman empire of rural land. One of the string of properties, Anna Creek station, overlaps the Woomera test range. In refusing approval, based on a FIRB recommendation, Morrison cited both the amount of land involved – 1.3% of Australia’s total land area – and security considerations.

Morrison stressed Australia must continue to attract strong inflows of foreign capital. “The Turnbull government will continue to welcome and support foreign investment that is not contrary to our national interest”.

While in referring to strengthening FIRB’s national security expertise, the government made no specific reference to Chinese investment – and security can be a factor in investment from some other countries – Chinese investment is what is in mind.

Irvine was director-general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIS), Australia’s overseas spying service, before heading ASIO. He is also a former Australian ambassador to China. Peever recently chaired the Minister of Defence’s First Principles Review of Defence.

FIRB advises the treasurer on foreign investment policy and its administration.

The government made the announcement of the appointments on Friday night, limiting the immediate media attention to them.

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