Hockey puts scrutiny of foreign land investment in question

TREASUER Joe Hockey has refused to confirm the Coalition will insist on a new $15 million threshold for scrutiny of foreign investment bids for land in its negotiations with the Chinese for a free trade agreement.

The lowering of the threshold for bids from non-state owned enterprises from $248 million was proposed in a Coalition paper before the election. It is strongly supported by the Nationals, making any walking away from it very tricky. Under the present policy all land bids by state owned enterprises automatically trigger Foreign Investment Review Board scrutiny.

Questioned today Hockey, speaking from Washington, dodged on whether the government would be flexible in its discussions with China.

"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," Hockey told Sky.

"I'm not going to preempt the outcome of any of the negotiations, but I do want to emphasise that Australia is open for investment and we need foreign investment. We need foreign investment because Australia cannot fund its own needs."

He also dodged when pressed on the long standing Chinese request to be given the same concession granted to the Americans of a $1 billion threshold for investments before there was a FIRB inquiry.

"I'm not going to preempt the outcome of negotiations," he said, "It's a balancing act and I'm very confident we will get it right if we are to conclude a free trade negotiation with China."

He said that in his discussion with the finance minister of China "we were both very frank with each other about the fact that it is important that [an agreement] had a two-way negotiation and a two-way investment flow."

The Nationals are expected to reaffirm their support in their party room for the $15 million threshold for land bids.

Victorian Liberal Dan Tehan last week said thresholds should be part of the FTA negotiation.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said that he wants an FTA with China concluded within a year.

Michelle Grattan is a Professorial Fellow at the University of Canberra