Press Conference, Beijing, China
26 July 2017
Subjects: Australian and Chinese infrastructure investment.
Darren Chester: Well, it is great to be here. I have had only 48 hours in China so far, but it has been very informative for me personally but also an opportunity to meet with some of the Australian businesses who have big investment plans for the future, already investing heavily in our relationship with China, but looking for further opportunities going forward. Obviously, in last Federal Budget the Commonwealth announced a $75 billion infrastructure investment program over ten years, with a particular focus on rail. The National Rail Program of $10 billion, plus the Inland Rail Project of $8.4 billion equity investment to ARTC. That is going to focus the Federal Government's investment in transport infrastructure in Australia, and we have got to learn from the China experience.
Part of the reason for the visit was to experience high-speed rail for the first time firsthand. Being able to transfer a lot of people very quickly from major centres on a network, which is now the best in the world is something that Australia, obviously, is envious of, and we want to see further investment in rail in our communities. We see a real opportunity for decentralisation in Australia, and part of the answer to the decentralisation question is how we use rail to drive further growth and opportunities in our regional communities, so it is about learning a bit from the Chinese experience; seeing what aspects of their knowledge are transferable to Australia. Obviously, the scale is not going to be the same, but the research and development that has gone in to the rail network here in China is something I think we can learn from.
Question: How much potential do you think there is, perhaps, to have Chinese investment in rail in Australia one day, perhaps a high-speed rail built by a Chinese company in Australia?
Darren Chester: Well, we have a $10 billion national rail program, which we announced in the Budget, that we are going to work with the state governments on their priorities, and we want to be engaging with them early in that process. We see real opportunities to use our rail network to pursue the decentralisation agenda of the Turnbull-Joyce Government. Now, whether that involves working directly with Chinese firms, or whether it is a research and technology-based liaison I am not sure; it is part of having these discussions during our next few days.
Question: In your discussions with Chinese counterparts, are you hearing any complaints at all about Australia not formally aligning with the One Belt, One Road infrastructure plan, and are you hearing any feedback that that may affect the potential for Chinese investment in, say, Australian rail?
Darren Chester: Well, I won't have my formal discussions with my Chinese counterpart until this afternoon, so no doubt there will be a range of things discussed during that meeting. I am looking forward to the discussion; we see real opportunities for Australia to be engaged at a commercial level, and with the One Belt, One Road policy we see opportunities going forward. We want to work with the major stakeholders to make sure that the benefits extend right throughout the Asian region, just as we are working in Australia on our own development plans to open up parts of Northern Australia, to open up regional Australia with the Inland Rail Project. We recognise the transformative nature of infrastructure investments. Good infrastructure can change people's lives; it can save people's lives. It'll change lives by reducing congestion, by improving productivity, by getting products to the market, and actually save lives by taking products off road and onto rail in many cases, which will improve road safety in places like Australia. So, we recognise the value of good infrastructure investments, just as the Chinese Government does.
Question: What about the other way round? You mentioned you'd talked to some Australian companies about investing here. Actually, that is something new to me. I have been back here almost two years, have seen almost no signs of Australian investment in China—so the Belt and Road program was hoped for that Australian companies and other companies in third countries could get involved in those consortia and work in other places in Asia and so on, you know, the WorleyParsons and so on, but we haven't seen any of this happening. Is that type of thing—are you lobbying on behalf of those sorts of companies? What's happening there?
Darren Chester: I expect that we will have a discussion over the next 24 to 48 hours on issues like that. I see opportunities for Australian expertise in the management and operation of open and transparent contracts for delivering major infrastructure projects. I think we have something to offer in that regard. We have good expertise to offer in that regard. So, that will be part of our discussions.
Question: And in terms of tendering for what you are talking about—the Australian rail projects and so on—you are going to be talking with Chinese companies that are—China Rail Construction, or companies like that, are you, about the tendering procedures and so on?
Darren Chester: Certainly, we will be working through the processes that we go through in Australia in terms of project selection, how we go about a tender process, the opportunities we see for private sector investment. I see, for example, in the visitor economy in Australia, real opportunities for further Chinese investment in the future. We have seen the air service agreement opened up to, I think, 134 flights, direct flights per week now into Australia; 1.2 million visitors to Australia last year from China. One of the opportunities, I think, is how we are going to invest in our regional product to get more of our Chinese visitors out enjoying other parts of Australia they perhaps hadn't thought of visiting in the past. So, I can see us working very closely with the Chinese business community, which has an interest and an understanding of what the Chinese visitor experience, what they are looking for. We offer great food and wine, a great natural experience. I think regional Australia needs to get ready for an influx of Chinese visitors, and they are perhaps not ready for it right now.
Question: Just a general question; you are saying that you are getting a first-hand experience of, say, Chinese high-speed rail. Just generally as a Minister, from your observations, are you impressed with what you see over here in terms of the infrastructure that China's been building? How do you, sort of, compare it to Australia's infrastructure?
Darren Chester: Well, you can read as much as you like about Chinese infrastructure investment; until you see it first-hand, you don't really appreciate the scale of it. It is quite staggering to see the service offering in terms of high-speed rail, to see the general infrastructure investment, which is occurring across the nation, is quite extraordinary to see. There is opportunities, I think, for Australia to be part of that success story for China and vice versa. I think we can work more close together in the future. We already have a great working relationship. I think that will deepen over time. The two-way trade now is in excess of $150 billion per year. I can only see that increase into the future as we get a better understanding of what the Chinese customer may want, what their expectations are when they come and visit Australia. In return, Australian producers in the agricultural sector are getting a much better understanding now of what Chinese families are looking for from those great products we produce in Australia. So, I can only see our relationship strengthening in the future.
Question: And what about the new infrastructure regime that your Government installed after the State Grid fiasco? You hit—obviously, the relevant Chinese departments have already been told about this by the Embassy as well, but are you going to say anything more about that? How do you think that that is working? It was designed to give more transparency to the situation, and you are going to, I think, supply a list of no-go projects and so on.
Darren Chester: Well, the Government has made it clear that we are very keen to secure foreign investment. It is good for our nation, it has always been part of the Australian story but obviously, we have got to make sure that that investment is in the national interest. The Treasurer, quite rightly, makes those decisions in conjunction with the Foreign Investment Review Board, and obviously, there is going to be expectations from the Australian community that we do act in the national interest at all times. We are keen to see investment in infrastructure in Australia, but there will be decisions made which reflect issues of national importance or national interest, whether it is around security or other issues.