Nearly 50 years ago, a conservative government, concerned at the rate at which foreigners were buying up profitable Australian enterprises, passed legislation to screen foreign takeovers. Ironically, the day the screening process commenced was the first day of a Labor Government. Since Australia has always relied on the inflow of foreign capital to keep afloat, the government had placed the responsibility for the screening process with the Treasury.
With a staff of 3, with 6 years of experience in another agency in dealing with senior executives of private corporations, I opened the takeover screening office. While I reported to a senior executive, I had no reason to consult him. I set up operating procedures, interpreted the legislation (with the concurrence of Attorney-General’s Department), and obtained agreement from my boss to proceed. I had previously told him about my background. My reports to the Treasurer, via the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB), would be approved by my boss, obviously.
Even after the FIRB Secretariat had grown to 8 Sections (in 3 Branches), I was the one who wrote the occasional briefings to the Treasurer about changes to the policy. This was an extension of my initial role – of explaining to powerful people how my office would operate. My offsider and I, together (to avoid any risk of being misquoted), would point out that a foreign takeover had only to be ‘not against the national interest.’ We were also required to guide the foreign investor to the gateways available. Later, I briefed lawyers and company executives about our approach, by invitation, in their offices.
For a former ‘blackfellow’ for whom the Australia worker was not yet ready, it was significant that, as with my work in the 1960s with the then Tariff Board, I was accepted readily by all the senior executives I dealt with in the 1970s.
In the 1980s, I again related successfully, but with the leaders of our ethnic communities and State Government executives. Australia had clearly joined the Family of Man.
Our political structures have now to open the door fully to multicultural participants, perhaps with a greater emphasis on secularism.