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Tougher land scrutiny won’t jeopardise China trade deal, says Liberal MP

Angus Taylor thinks Australia will be able to negotiate a FTA with China. Facebook

As Nationals fear an Australia-China free trade agreement might water down proposed tougher foreign investment scrutiny of land and agribusiness takeovers, new Liberal MP Angus Taylor has dismissed as “dross” suggestions such a compromise would be needed to secure a deal.

Taylor, a former director with Port Jackson Partners with a long history of advising on agribusiness, resources and infrastructure, said New Zealand’s FTA with China had far tougher restrictions on agricultural land purchase than the Coalition’s proposed policy.

The Nationals are concerned at comments by Treasurer Joe Hockey, who refused to confirm the Coalition will insist on a new $15 million threshold (down from $248 million) for scrutiny of foreign investment bids for land in its FTA negotiations with China. (Bids from state owned companies already face automatic scrutiny.)

Hockey said: “The $15 million threshold applies to those countries that have not signed the free trade agreement with Australia, and therefore we deal with them on a case by case basis. We will see where the negotiations take us.”

The Chinese want a $1 billion exemption from scrutiny for investment generally, the same as Australia gives the US. Former Labor trade minister Craig Emerson has said the Chinese would not agree to an FTA unless the government showed flexibility on thresholds.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott defended the planned $15 million land threshold this week. Abbott said: “I think it is a very reasonable position. I think it’s strongly supported out there amongst the Australian people, and yes, we will proceed with it.”

Tomorrow the Nationals are expected to discuss the touchy foreign investment issue at their party meeting. NSW Nationals senator John Williams said today he would raise the land issue.

In an interview with The Conversation Taylor, a former Rhodes scholar who is MP for the NSW regional seat of Hume, said foreign investment in land needed “a social licence”.

“People need to see the benefits of it and they need to be comfortable that it is not being misused or inappropriately used.

"Maintaining that social licence means … having lower thresholds.” He said $15 million was not a particularly low threshold. “There’s not that much [land] above that threshold – there’s a real question about whether maintaining social license means it should be lower.”

“I find this debate just extraordinary,” he said. New Zealand, which has an FTA with China, had far greater restrictions on land than the federal government proposes.

“When I hear people from the Labor party say ‘you can’t have a free trade agreement with lower thresholds’, I say that’s just dross, that’s just wrong.

"You can look at a number of agricultural superpowers in the world, of which New Zealand is one and South America is another, and they’re far more restrictive than us, so I don’t think this argument that lowering the threshold would prevent a free trade agreement is at all correct.

"It’s a matter of having the will to do it, and I think the real issue with these free trade agreements is having the will to bang the table and negotiate these outcomes. I know that’s what [Trade and Investment Minister] Andrew Robb thinks.”

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