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Australians debating role of foreign investment

Foreign investment looms as a major campaign theme in Australia's federal elections, due late this year. Public opinion is divided on the question of whether to allow foreign investors -- multinational corporations, in particular -- a greater stake in the fast-expanding development of the country's vast natural resources.

Strong indications of this come at a time when new Department of Industry and Commerce figures show A$33.5 billion (US$38.82 billion) has been committed to major mining and manufacturing projects that have already started or are in the "final feasibility" stage. The figure released by the department is up 76 percent from the released last October. It reflects a rapidly quickening pace of Australian resources development scheduled for this decade.

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Coal producers, for example, report a rash of new approaches from Japanese and -- to a lesser extent -- South Korean buyers, anxious to assure themselves of new or increased long-term supplies and willing to invest in production. As the swing from oil back to coal continues, this enthusiasm is expected to become more pronounced.

But it is not universally welcomed.

The Australian Labor Party, the opposition party in the Federal Parliament, intends to make the matter an election issue.

According to opposition leader William Hayden, increasing foreign ownership and control of Australian industries and natural resources will be a major election issue this year.

"Ten years ago total foreign investment in Australia amounted to A$6.5 billion [US$7.5 billion]," Mr. Hayden said. "It is now a massive A$15 billion [ US$17.4 billion] and accelerating at the rate f A$2 billion [US$2.3 billion] a year." He claimed that government policy "is designed to maximize foreign investment regardless of the degree of Australian ownership" and said Australia needed to establish the means to develop the nation and its resources without losing control of them.

The Labor Party's reservations about the extent of foreign investment results , in part, from the suspicion with which multinational corporations have traditionally been viewed by much of Labor and by many of the trade unions. On the far left of the party and the union movement there's outright opposition to multinationals.

The wariness of Labor is matched by enthusiasm for the new projects in the government of Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, which sees support for increased foreign investment in resources as a vote-catcher. Labor takes an opposite view of public attitudes.

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Prime Minister Fraser said the new projects "are a dramatic illustration of our commitment to Australia's national development and of our desire to channel government spending into directions that will build the basic strength of Australia."

The minister of industry and commerce, Philip Lynch, said the planned developments will generate "tens of thousands" of jobs and investment opportunities across much of the economy.

But Labor's Mr. Hayden is critical of the Foreign Investment Review Board, arguing that in almost four years the board had rejected only 30 of 4,437 proposals to buy stakes in Australian mining, industries, factories, and real estate. Over 3,400 of these proposals, he claimed, were takeovers involving a change from Australian to foreign control.

He said Labor would insist "on a maximized effort to establish a minimum 51 percent Australian ownership of all mineral developments."

Labor would require the Foreign Investment Review Board to monitor and report on the activities in Australia of multinational corporation, Mr. Hayden said.

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