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Nationals scrutiny ’threatens’ free trade agreements

The Australian, Canberra

Nationals scrutiny ’threatens’ free trade agreements

By Matthew Franklin and Ben Packham

13 March 2012

Labor has seized on Coalition disunity over foreign investment to warn that a Nationals plan for new restrictions on investment in farmland would breach the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement.

Nationals leader Warren Truss has denied the Labor claim, he has insisted a Coalition government wants to strengthen the national interest tests that apply to foreign investors.

Earlier this month, Mr Truss reportedly said foreign investment in farmland or agribusiness worth more than $20 million should face review and be considered in the same "sensitive" category as investments in media and defence. His comments came amid debate within the Coalition about how to deal with concerns about foreign investment in farmland, with Liberals opposed to limiting overseas investment.

Yesterday, Trade Minister Craig Emerson, who on Sunday outlined plans to harness foreign investment to spark a revolution in agricultural production, said Mr Truss’s proposal to expose investments to greater scrutiny was out of line with existing trade arrangements. "The Coalition’s policy would tear up four trade and investment agreements, including the US-Australia FTA and FTAs with Singapore and Thailand, as well as an investment agreement with New Zealand," Dr Emerson said. "Considering Mr Truss was a member of the cabinet that negotiated the US-Australia FTA, the Nationals are taking a U-turn to an anti-trade Hansonist position that would devastate Australian farming communities."

Mr Truss, heading up a Coalition committee on the issue, said no threshold had been set.

He said any proposal for investment by a government-owned entity was examined by the Foreign Investment Review Board and his concern was about whether purchases by foreign companies were in line with the national interest.