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Australia regarded as 'open and efficient' in regulating foreign investment: FIRB chairman -

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MARK COLVIN: Like walking a barbed-wire tightrope; that's how the chairman of the Foreign Investment Review Board, Brian Wilson, has described his role at the centre of one of Australia's most heated political debates.

Speaking at a conference in Darwin this morning, the usually elusive chairman defended the FIRB's controversial national interest test.

It uses that to assess the sale of farmland and other sensitive businesses to foreign buyers.

Brian Wilson spoke to political reporter Anna Vidot.

BRIAN WILSON: So our role firstly is to ensure that the foreign investment that does come in is not contrary to our national interest.

Our second role is to ensure that various stakeholders are comfortable with what's occurring, so that one the one side foreign investors, foreign governments, Australian companies seeking foreign capital, are comfortable that we have an efficient welcoming system and on the other, the Australian public, in particular are comfortable that we have a system that does protect Australia's national interest.

ANNA VIDOT: An of course once it does come to you, it's the national interest test, that's applied. There's been criticism of that test - that its subjective, that it’s sort of a bit mysterious and opaque, that it's not clear what exactly the board is assessing.

Do you agree, or do you think those criticisms have some point, and what might the board be able to do in any case to address that perception, that concern?

BRIAN WILSON: No, I don't, in fact I disagree very strongly. I think our undefined national interest test has served Australia extremely well.

ANNA VIDOT: In what sense?

BRIAN WILSON: An undefined national interest test which was put into place when the foreign acquisitions and takeovers regime was put in place in 1975 has been able to adapt with the times.

In the ‘70s, there was a lot of community concern around American investment in our manufacturing base. Now we encourage foreign investment in manufacturing.

In the late 1980s there was a lot of concern around Japanese investment in tourism infrastructure, now I think we will be thrilled if the Japanese wanted to invest in tourism infrastructure.

ANNA VIDOT: But isn't that one of the problems, isn't that one of the reasons for community concern is because the process that assesses the national interest is so opaque?

BRIAN WILSON: The national interest also changes. It changes according to economic situations in Australia and around the world. It changes in accordance with geopolitics.

ANNA VIDOT: The Foreign Investment Review Board of course is right at the centre of all of these decisions, but you're a body that we very rarely hear from.

Do you see any merit in perhaps changing that, that the FIRB might be able to calm some of the community concerns about this process if you are able to talk about why you make the decisions you make?

BRIAN WILSON: Well, let me first clarify the Foreign Investment Review Board is an advisory body, the final formal decision-maker is the Treasurer.

ANNA VIDOT: Who almost always though does what the FIRB tells it to do, or suggests he should do.

BRIAN WILSON: And while it might be the case that you don't necessarily hear from us constantly, I think we are doing much more than we used to, to communicate.

ANNA VIDOT: Your annual report which was released on Friday showed that there been a significant, I think $1.9 billion increase in the value of proposed projects coming to FIRB over the past year.

Does that mean that concerns that this new regulatory regime may harm Australia's image in the eyes of investors is actually not the case?

BRIAN WILSON: Australia is the world's 12th largest economy. Over the last 25 years, we have ranked between 8th and 16th in terms of share of direct foreign investment.

ANNA VIDOT: How does Australia's regulatory regime shape up against countries like the United States, like New Zealand?

BRIAN WILSON: From an international perspective, I think we shape up well. We are genuinely regarded as an open and efficient assessor of foreign investment.

MARK COLVIN: That's the Foreign Investment Review Board Chairman, Brian Wilson, speaking to Anna Vidot.