Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Rudd takes hard line on foreign investment - The Australian Financial Review

Rudd takes hard line on foreign investment

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd leapt into foreign investment after Oppostion Leader Tony Abbott all but confirmed Coalition policy would be to lower the $244 million threshold at which the FIRB scrutinises private bids for land to $15 million. Photo: Getty Images

Phillip Coorey Chief political correspondent

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has flagged a new hardline approach towards ­foreign investment in Australian property, saying he favoured joint ventures over outright foreign ownership.

He also raised concerns about small suppliers being squeezed out by supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths.

Mr Rudd spoke out during the third and final leadership debate in which he was taken to task by voters in western Sydney, underscoring deeper problems Labor faces in the region ahead of the September 7 election.

The debate followed shadow treasurer Joe Hockey unveiling $31.6 billion in budget cuts and savings he would implement if elected. More will follow next week.

In the debate, held at the Rooty Hill RSL, Tony Abbott, in a move to shut down Labor claims about planned health cuts by the Coalition, ruled out closing any Medicare locals just days after he and his health spokesperson Peter Dutton left this option wide open.

Mr Rudd's main focus was Mr Abbott's $5.5 billion-a-year paid parental leave scheme, which he said highlighted what he described as Mr Abbott's skewed priorities.

Foreign investment issue takes centre stage

But Mr Rudd leapt into the foreign investment issue after Mr Abbott said he supported the practice with extra safeguards. In doing so, Mr Abbott all but confirmed Coalition policy would be to lower the $244 million threshold at which the Foreign Investment Review Board would scrutinise private bids for land to $15 million. The threshold is zero for state-owned enterprises.

An Abbott government would create foreign-owned farmland and agribusiness registers.

Mr Rudd, however, indicated he would go further if re-elected, saying, "I'm a bit nervous, a bit anxious, frankly, about simply an open slather approach on this".

"I think when it is about rural land and land more generally, we need to adopt a more cautious approach," he said. "We should not have open slather."

Mr Rudd did not nominate any specific policy changes but said his preference was for joint ventures involving Australian and overseas companies.

"We need to take a more cautious approach to this in the future without throwing the baby out with the bathwater," he said.

Mr Abbott appeared more liberal, saying Australia should not have a "colour ban" on investors.

"That would be shocking," he said. Afterwards, the Coalition accused Mr Rudd of policy on the run. Until now, Labor has been more liberal on foreign investment than the Liberals who are hamstrung by their alliance with the Nationals.

The Coalition has already promised an inquiry into the market dominance of Coles and Woolworths. On Wednesday night, Mr Rudd said "there's deep reservation and feeling about what's going on out there".

The debate was remarkable for the fact no one mentioned asylum seekers, a red-hot issue in western Sydney. Still, the audience of 100 undecided voters was more hostile towards Mr Rudd, quizzing him on subjects ranging from the Labor leadership, to how he would pay for his promises, and Labor's failure to deliver a surplus.

Rudd quizzes Abbott's paid parental leave scheme

Mr Rudd mentioned at least half-a-dozen times Mr Abbott's $5.5 billion paid parental leave scheme, which would pay mothers their full salary for six months, capped at annual salaries of $150,000. Mr Rudd said the election was about choices and "I don't understand why his No. 1 priority is a paid parental leave scheme that provides $75,000 for millionaires".

"Why would you have a paid parental leave scheme for millionaires and cut the schoolkids' bonus?"

Tackled on the budget by a small businessman named Ian, Mr Rudd defended Labor's deficit, saying it was a consequence of keeping the economy out of recession during the global financial crisis.

Mr Rudd told Ian it was the Coalition that was the enemy of small business, noting the $31.6 billion in Coalition savings announced on Wednesday included almost $5 billion in lost tax breaks for business.

Mr Abbott reasoned that the tax breaks were unaffordable because they were supposed to be funded by the mining tax, which was not raising any revenue.

Ian then told Mr Abbott he thought his paid parental leave scheme was "a good scheme", even though "the forklift driver in Mt Druitt shouldn't be paying his taxes so a pretty little lady lawyer on the North Shore earning 180 grand a year can have a kid".

Mr Rudd was accused by another audience member of destabilising Julia Gillard's leadership in the months before the June coup.

"In our democracy, political parties put their best foot forward," Mr Rudd said, denying he had undermined Ms Gillard.

"I was contributing fully to the efforts of the government."

Harbouring secret plans

Mr Rudd claimed Mr Abbott was harbouring secret plans to cut health, citing earlier statements by Mr Abbott and Mr Dutton about Medicare locals. But Mr Abbott said: "Absolutely no Medicare local will close."

Since the start of the campaign, Mr Abbott has stressed the election is about the people not his job nor that of Mr Rudd.

In his opening remarks, Mr Rudd said: "I see my job as Prime Minister of Australia as doing everything possible to protect your job for the future."

Mr Rudd returned to Canberra after the debate for a briefing on the Syrian crisis. On Tuesday night, Mr Rudd said Mr Abbott did not have the temperament to run the country in times of international crisis.

Referring to unfolding events in Syria, Mr Rudd said: "I sometimes question, I really do question having known Mr Abbott for a long, long time, whether he really has the temperament for that sort of thing.

"You've got to sit back, think calmly, reflect and then work through what the best decision is. And temperament, judgment and experience are quite important."

Mr Rudd backed his comments on Wednesday, saying Mr Abbott could not credibly "play the statesman" after spending 19 of his 20 years in Parliament as an "exceptionally aggressive and negative politician".

But Mr Abbott noted it was Mr Rudd who was widely renowned for his lack of temperament.

"I would simply suggest that if you want to know my character, ask my colleagues. If you want to know Mr Rudd's character, ask his colleagues," he said.

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