Andrew Robb welcomes closer scrutiny via Critical Infrastructure Centre

Publication: The Australian
Author: Perry Williams

Australia’s security crackdown on critical infrastructure is long overdue to help the government navigate the increasing connectedness of major infrastructure assets, ­according to former trade minister Andrew Robb.

Mr Robb, who is a consultant to Chinese company Landbridge, said the establishment of the Critical Infrastructure Centre was an acknowledgment that modern economies had to deal with growing threats to critical electricity, water and port assets.

“It’s an area where there is so much change going on that sometimes businesses get ahead of the regulations,” Mr Robb told The Australian yesterday.

“In such a connected world as we have now, it increases again the nervousness about some security issues. Sometimes it’s not warranted, sometimes it is. But you’ve got to work through these things.”

The federal government is now reviewing a $13 billion bid from Hong Kong’s CK Infrastructure Holdings for pipeline giant APA Group, representing the first major deal since the establishment of the CIC unit, which advises the Foreign Investment Review Board on infrastructure takeovers.

The acquisition would create a pipeline behemoth controlling major infrastructure on both sides of the country at a time of concern within Canberra over high gas prices and supply shortages.

“There’s always tough issues,” Mr Robb said when asked about CKI’s bid for APA. “But I do think we need to get a good balance ­between our security interests and our commercial interests. We’ve done it before but we need to continue to test that relationship.”

The architect of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement said Australia was recognised ­internationally for its clear rules around investment and said the CIC would help to ensure it ­remains in the top tier.

“When I was minister one of the greatest advantages we had around the world, I found, was that people thought we had an abundance of regulations but they also thought they served a very good purpose. Once they got through it all, things didn’t change and there was a large measure of certainty. If this attachment to FIRB delivers more understanding and therefore more certainty, it’s going to serve a good purpose.”

Mr Robb left the government before the 2016 election and took a job as a consultant with Landbridge after it won a contract to lease and operate the Port of Darwin. He has rejected suggestions that he was linked to Chinese ­influence in Australia, stating he only worked for Landbridge on ­activities outside Australia.

The former politician was a cabinet minister in Tony Abbott’s government and a Liberal frontbencher during the 11-year reign of John Howard.

CK Infrastructure strongly ­rejected suggestions last week that it was under any influence from the Chinese government and said it was surprised it was blocked in 2016 from buying NSW electricity company Ausgrid because of an undisclosed security issue.

CKI deputy managing director Andrew Hunter said last week the Hong Kong-based company was “a very different thing” from a Chinese state-owned company or a Chinese private company like telco Huawei, which was recently blocked from participating in Australia’s 5G network on the grounds of potential influence from Beijing.

Mr Hunter rejected suggestions that CKI chairman Victor Li’s role as a member of the standing committee of the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference meant CKI could be influenced by the Chinese government.

Joe Robb