Foreign companies now face tighter scrutiny buying infrastructure in Australia

The Darwin Beer Can Regatta. Terry Trewin/Getty Images

Rules about the sale of critical infrastructure, such as the port of Darwin, recently leased to a Chinese company, have been tightened under new foreign ownership rules.

The tougher regulations on the sale of roads, airports, power stations and telecommunications, came as treasurer Scott Morrison announced the forced sale of 27 properties, worth more than $76 million, illegally acquired by foreign nationals.

And under the new rules, an agricultural land foreign ownership register is being set up and the Foreign Investment Review Board will now screen direct interests in agribusinesses valued at $55 million or more.

“While we welcome foreign investment in Australia it is imperative that critical infrastructure sales are scrutinised to ensure any potential national security risks can be addressed,” says Morrison.

The Foreign Investment Review Board must from the end of this month approve the sale to private companies of critical infrastructure owned by states and territories worth more than $250 million. The states and territories have agreed to the changes.

“While (state) governments can, and do, work cooperatively with the Commonwealth when selling such assets, the proposed change will formalise the process and ensure future sales of critical infrastructure to privately owned investors are properly scrutinised,” Morrison says.

Questions were raised when the Northern Territory Government in October awarded Chinese company Landbridge a 99-year lease to the Darwin Port, which is used by Australian defence forces, in a deal worth worth $506 million.

President Barack Obama told prime minister Malcolm Turnbull the US would have appreciated being consulted about the deal.

Under current rules, Foreign Investment Review Board assessment of critical infrastructure was only required when assets were sold to state-owned enterprises.

David Irvine, a former director general of both the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, will join the Foreign Investment Review Board to bolster the board’s ability to advise on national security.

Critical infrastructure assets are defined as: public infrastructure (airports, ports, public transport, electricity, gas, water and sewerage systems); existing and proposed roads, railways; telecommunications infrastructure; and nuclear facilities.

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