China’s stake in the Port of Newcastle has been questioned following recent changes to foreign investment laws.
The port, which is the largest coal export port in the world, is operated by a company via a 98-year lease with the NSW government.
That company is part-owned by the same Chinese state-owned corporation involved in Victoria’s Belt and Road Initiative — an agreement scrapped by the Morrison government in April after it cited the arrangements as inconsistent with foreign policy.
Nationals Queensland senator Susan McDonald asked the government during Senate estimates on Tuesday whether the $1.75 billion lease sold by the NSW government in 2014 would still be approved today “given the geopolitical environment”.
She also asked what powers Australia had if China were to disrupt coal exports via their ownership in the local port.
Earlier this year, maritime unions were angered when ships laden with Australian coal were stranded off China’s coast – with some seafarers on board for up to 20 months – waiting to unload because China wouldn’t let them.
Leader of the government in the senate, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, said legislation had been brought in since the lease deal was struck giving the government and Treasury more powers in regard to foreign investments.
While the question was hypothetical, and the legislation was not retrospective, Australia could respond to such a potential situation with extra powers if necessary, he said.
“If we were to see that type of disruptive behaviour occur, the government would clearly view that very dimly and would explore, no doubt, what other options were available,” he said.
Senator Birmingham said it could include using powers under competition laws to stop the disruption of commercial activities or urgent laws being brought in.
“It may necessitate in terms of that type of extreme scenario that you’ve pointed out, the rapid passage of further legislation, which is always within the power of a sovereign parliament, such as Australia, to respond to a potential circumstance like that,” he said.