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Wednesday, 8 December 1993
Page: 4148

Senator KERNOT —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Treasurer. I refer to the Treasury annual report for 1992-93, which was released yesterday. In it we find that the 17 staff members now attached to the Foreign Investment Review Board each had to process 250 foreign investment applications last year compared with 160 for each staffer in the previous year and 35 just a decade ago. At the same time, they collectively had to answer some 40,000 phone inquiries and were also supposed to follow up on the more than 1,900 approvals that were issued with conditions attached in the previous year. Can the minister give a guarantee, with staff spending less and less time on each application, that foreign investment proposals are being properly evaluated, especially with regard to whether they are contrary to the national interest, which is the criterion the government applies to them?

Senator McMULLAN —Notwithstanding that I am the Minister representing the Treasurer, the Senate would be stunned to know that I have not actually read the Treasury annual report. It is a terrible confession to have to make and I very sincerely regret it. I am sure every other senator has and I am apologetic for letting down the 75 who so industriously read it. We will ask questions about it after question time.

  I did not know that those figures were in the annual report, but I accept them as being an accurate reflection of what is there. The figures reflect, as I am sure Senator Kernot would agree, the very industrious and hardworking nature of the officers in question. I think it is appropriate to put that on the record from time to time since we only talk about public servants in here when we criticise them. I like to have the opportunity to say how well and diligently these people work.

  I am not aware of any expressions of concern by any staff of the Foreign Investment Review Board that the current staffing arrangements are not sufficient to enable them to discharge their obligations under the act. They are very responsible people. If they were concerned, they would have made it clear. I am not aware of any. To the best of my knowledge, there have not been any. If that is not correct, I will come back to the Senate. But that is my understanding.

  The decade comparison is not particularly relevant because the nature of scrutiny of foreign investment review proposals has changed as the law has changed over the last decade, but that cannot explain the difference over the last year. I think the explanation of the difference is the significant increase in interest in investment in Australia over the last 12 months, which I greatly welcome. I think it is a very positive situation that more and more people are interested in investing in this country. That is how we are going to create more jobs. If there is anything the Treasurer wishes to add, I will report back to the Senate.

Senator KERNOT —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. The flow of foreign investment is on the rise again. The minister says that he welcomes that. I welcome that with our strings attached. Even if staff are just giving it the big tick as usual, does the minister really think there are going to be enough staff to cope adequately with the follow-up on approvals issued with conditions attached? How can they properly monitor these conditions with so few people?

Senator McMULLAN —It is always the case that with more staff all departments and agencies could do more, but the tax base would go up as we employed a lot more people. I do not think to put more resources in here is the most cost-effective use of the taxpayer's dollar. I would be pleased to be in the situation where there was so much interest in investment in Australia that we had to employ more people to look at it. That would be a very welcome situation. It would mean we were creating more jobs. I think that is the primary concern of all senators, and certainly of the government.

  There is an agreed staffing level for the Treasury. It has allocated its staff to, amongst others, the Foreign Investment Review Board. I know some of the officers concerned. They are very skilled and capable officers. They have not expressed any concern about being unable to discharge their statutory obligations. As I said before, if the Treasurer has some other concern, I will come back and report it to the Senate.