Concerns over the sale of the country’s biggest electricity distribution grid to a Chinese consortium has not only the public worried, but MPs from across the country.
The government is considering leasing a 50.4 per cent stake into Ausgrid, the New South Wales state-owned enterprise, on a 99-year contract. As well as servicing the public, it supplies NSW government departments and the stock exchange.
Front runners for the bid include the State Grid Corporation of China or Hong Kong’s Cheung Kong Infrastructure, owned by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing.
Treasurer Scott Morrison said the decision was “not far away”.
The sale is set to earn big bucks for the NSW government, with a whopping $10 billion reportedly on the table. It comes as no surprise, considering Ausgrid supplies its service to more than 1.6 million homes and businesses in NSW.
And as the public reacts nervously to the news, One Nation Leader Senator Pauline Hanson has joined a chorus of politicians, including South Australian senator Nick Xenophon and Independent MP Bob Katter, to raise the alarm.
West Australian MP and former SAS soldier Andrew Hastie posted an Australian article over the weekend by Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, arguing “preserving Australian national security should be our primary concern when considering foreign investment in critical infrastructure”.
“The problem for Sydney’s poles and wires is that ownership by a Chinese state-owned enterprise makes it enormously challenging to protect the security of the grid without there being a risk that Chinese intelligence services may try to exploit the connection,” he wrote.
“We can’t afford to be naive about this.”
Senator Xenophon has written to Treasurer Scott Morrison saying he doesn’t think it’s in the national interest for the state-owned enterprise to buy a 99-year lease on more than half of Ausgrid.
“It begs a bigger question that we need some sensible reforms similar to other countries, similar to New Zealand, for a more transparent foreign investment framework,” he told ABC radio.
Yet Mr Morrison insists national security will be the top priority in the decision.
“Within the government’s consideration, within the confines of the national security advice and the very technical information that is available to the government, people can be very assured that we are taking that to the nth degree in examining the national security issues around that transaction,” he said on Sky News.
“I will be informing myself as I have been very extensively, particularly since the election, on the national security implications of this transaction.”
He said the sale would have to “be managed carefully. Australia has relied on foreign investment ever since Captain Cook showed up pretty much for our prosperity.”
Liberal frontbencher Angus Taylor hit back at critics of Mr Morrison’s foreign investment plan, claiming it is extremely important in Australia.
“If foreign investment stopped tomorrow your mortgage rates would go through the roof immediately,” he told Sky News.
But the national interest test would include national security considerations, he said.
“We can’t compromise national security.”
Labor has joined in the chorus of concern, questioning whether the sale undermines national security and the impact of electricity prices to the public.
“Labor has three principles by which we think this deal should be assessed and these all go towards the national interest. Does the sale of Ausgrid undermine in any fashion our national security? Does it ensure there are more or less Australian jobs and what will be impact on electricity prices?
“For me, the matter of foreign investment comes down to Australian jobs, the prices that consumers and families pay and of course, where relevant, national security.
“What we don’t need is for the Liberal Party just to rush this through as they did with the Port of Darwin. They need to take these matters seriously. They can’t dismiss concerns around jobs, around electricity prices, and around national security merely because Premier Baird wants to try to get an inflated price before the next election for the sale of New South Wales electricity assets.”
The Foreign Investment Review Board, that looks at foreign takeovers and foreign ownership proposals, is yet to return their verdict on the clearance of the sale.