COVER STORY: News Weekly
NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The WMC takeover - losing our last mining giant
, February 26, 2005
It is a measure of the topsy-turvy nature of national politics that concern over the accidental incarceration of a deranged foreign-speaking Australian citizen completely overshadows the meek handing over of the nation's last great mining house, Western Mining Corporation, to foreign interests.
The detention of Cornelia Rau is clearly a regrettable mishap or series of mishaps, and most likely indicative of a system with multiple problems along the chain from police to psychological assessments to internal procedures within the Departments of Immigration and Foreign Affairs.Selling-out of Australia
Nevertheless, the problems will inevitably be rectified and hopefully those responsible dealt with appropriately. The selling-out of Australia, by contrast, can never be rectified, and those responsible will be dead and gone by the time the nation realises what has happened.
Running at the same time as the Rau incident, but gaining far less moral outrage among the commentariat, has been the agreement to sell off Western Mining Corporation - virtually without a whimper - and mostly likely to the Swiss international predator, Xstrata.
If the sale - mooted at somewhere around $8 billion - goes through, Western Mining will be the last of the nation's large-scale miners to fall into foreign hands.
Former Liberal Party treasurer, Ron Walker, tried vainly to raise some concerns inside the Government, and WA Premier Geoff Gallop warned that Xstrata was a bad corporate citizen whose interests were purely to gouge what it could out of WMC.
"This is a sovereign issue that needs absolute ventilation," Mr Walker said.
"Both sides of the house would prefer to have the assets held by an Australian mining company which they can trust.
"I think the Treasurer will pay particular interest to that."
In fact, Treasurer Peter Costello went through the motions by expressing initial "caution" over the merits of a proposed Xstrata takeover, declaring that it would have to be carefully examined by the Foreign Investment Review Board.
"Price is a matter for shareholders," Mr Costello said.
"The government looks at the national interest. If a bid is against the national interest at whatever price, it wouldn't be allowed."
Of course, the words were completely hot air - the FIRB has been a rubber stamp for foreign takeovers for years, and Mr Costello accepted its advice to agree to the takeover bid.
A far from exhaustive list of Australian miners which have fallen to foreigners in recent years includes MIM, CRA, Comalco, Normandy Mining, Pasminco and BHP - which is nominally still Australian, but in reality run by the British company, Billiton.
The only "problem" with the Xstrata bid, as far as the Coalition and the Labor Opposition were concerned, was over foreigners having control of WMC's Olympic Dam project, which contains about one-third of the world's known uranium resources.
However, it has also been revealed that Xstrata has deep links with Russian and Iranian businesses and, despite government assurances to the contrary, it is also possible that Australian uranium could fall into the hands of unscrupulous traders.
In other words, uranium products from Australia could end up in the hands of terrorists; but incredibly Australia's fear of doing damage to its free-trade reputation and worship of the global marketplace must take precedence.
The only notable recent exception was the blocking of Shell's bid for Woodside Petroleum - a decision allegedly taken on national interest grounds, given Woodside's north-west shelf gas interests, but more likely because of a backbench revolt in WA.
Australia's attitude to foreign takeovers is like the proverbial boiling frog - the nation does not seem to notice until the water reaches boiling point.
Month after month, year after year, Australian companies are being sold off to global predators and no one inside the Coalition or even the Labor Party expresses concern.