3. Legal Regime
Transparency of the Regulatory System
The Australian Government utilizes transparent policies and effective laws to foster national competition and is consultative in its policy making process. The government generally allows for public comment of draft legislation and publishes legislation once it enters into force.
Regulations drafted by Australian Government agencies must be accompanied by a Regulation Impact Statement when submitted to the final decision maker (which may be the Cabinet, a Minister, or another decision maker appointed by legislation.) All Regulation Impact Statements must first be approved by the Office of Best Practice Regulation (OBPR) which sits within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, prior to being provided to the relevant decision maker. They are required to demonstrate the need for regulation, the alternative options available (including non-regulatory options), feedback from stakeholders, and a full cost-benefit analysis. Regulations are subsequently required to be reviewed periodically. All Regulation Impact Statements, second reading speeches, explanatory memoranda, and associated legislation are made publicly available on Government websites. Australia’s state and territory governments have similar processes when making new regulations.
The Australian Government has tended to prefer self-regulatory options where industry can demonstrate that the size of the risks are manageable and that there are mechanisms for industry to agree on, and comply with, self-regulatory options that will resolve the identified problem. This manifests in various ways across industries, including voluntary codes of conduct and similar agreements between industry players.
The Australian Government has recognized the impost of regulations and has undertaken a range of initiatives to reduce red tape. This has included specific red tape reduction targets for government agencies, and various deregulatory groups within government agencies.
Australian accounting, legal, and regulatory procedures are transparent and consistent with international standards. Accounting standards are formulated by the Australian Accounting Standards Board (AASB), an Australian Government agency under the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001. Under that Act, the statutory functions of the AASB are to develop a conceptual framework for the purpose of evaluating proposed standards; make accounting standards under section 334 of the Corporations Act 2001, and advance and promote the main objects of Part 12 of the ASIC Act, which include reducing the cost of capital, enabling Australian entities to compete effectively overseas and maintaining investor confidence in the Australian economy. The Australian Government conducts regular reviews of proposed measures and legislative changes and holds public hearings into such matters.
Australian government financing arrangements are transparent and well governed. Legislation governing the type of financial arrangements the government and its agencies may enter into is publicly available and adhered to. Updates on the Government’s financial position are regularly posted on the Department of Finance and the Treasury websites. Issuance of government debt is managed by the Australian Office of Financial Management, which holds regular tenders for the sale of government debt and the outcomes of these tenders are publicly available. The Australian government also publishes and adheres to strict procurement guidelines. Australia completed negotiations to join the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement in February 2019.
International Regulatory Considerations
Australia is a member of the WTO and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and became the first Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) Dialogue Partner in 1974. While not a regional economic block, Australia’s free trade agreement with New Zealand provides for a high level of integration between the two economies with the ultimate goal of a single economic market.
Australia is a signatory to the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) and performs at, or close to, the frontier for all eleven OECD Trade Facilitation Indicators. For the eight indicators where it is not located at the frontier, it has significantly improved on six between 2015 and 2017. While no new legislation has been required to progress Australia’s implementation of the TFA, Australia has created a National Committee on Trade Facilitation to oversee development of new trade facilitation initiatives. Two important initiatives to date have been the creation of an Authorized Economic Operator scheme to allow approved companies to streamline imports through Australian Customs, and the creation of a “single window” portal for traders seeking information on importation and permit requirements.
Legal System and Judicial Independence
The Australian legal system is firmly grounded on the principles of equal treatment before the law, procedural fairness, judicial precedent, and the independence of the judiciary. Strong safeguards exist to ensure that people are not treated arbitrarily or unfairly by governments or officials. Property and contractual rights are enforced through the Australian court system, which is based on English Common Law.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
Information regarding investing in Australia can be found in Austrade’s “Guide to Investing” at . The guide is designed to help international investors and businesses navigate investing and operating in Australia. It is an online guide to the regulations, considerations and assistance relevant to investing in, establishing and running a business in Australia, with direct links to relevant regulators and government agencies that relate to Australian Government regulation and available assistance.
Foreign investment in Australia is regulated by the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act 1975 and Australia’s Foreign Investment Policy. The Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB), a division of Australia’s Treasury, is a non-statutory body established to advise the Treasurer and the Commonwealth Government on Australia’s foreign investment policy and its administration. The FIRB screens potential foreign investments in Australia above threshold values, and based on advice from the FIRB, the Treasurer may deny or place conditions on the approval of particular investments above that threshold on national interest grounds. Following a number of recent investments made by foreign companies in key sectors of Australia’s economy, the laws and regulations governing foreign direct investment have been subject to a wide ranging and ongoing review.
The Australian Government has a “national interest” consideration in reviewing foreign investment applications. Further information on foreign investment screening, including screening thresholds for certain sectors and countries, can be found at the FIRB’s website: . Under the AUSFTA agreement, all U.S. greenfield investments are exempt from FIRB screening. U.S. investors require prior approval if acquiring a substantial interest in a primary production business valued above AUD 1.154 billion (USD808 million).
Australia has recently taken steps to increase the analysis of national security implications of foreign investment in certain sectors. In January 2017, the Government established the Critical Infrastructure Centre (CIC) to better manage the risks to Australia’s critical infrastructure assets. A key role of the CIC is to advise the FIRB on risks associated with foreign investment in infrastructure assets, particularly telecommunications, electricity, water, and port assets. While the CIC’s role in the foreign investment process signals the Government’s focus on these assets, its role is limited to providing advice to the Government and the approval framework itself was not changed when the CIC was established. Further changes to investments in electricity assets and agricultural land were announced in early 2018. Under these changes, electricity infrastructure is formally viewed as “critical infrastructure”, and foreign purchases will face additional scrutiny and conditions, while agricultural land is now required to be “marketed widely” to Australian buyers before being sold to a foreign buyer.
There have been very few instances of foreign investment applications being rejected by the Treasurer. Of the 11,855 applications considered between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018 (the 2018 Australian financial year), only two were rejected. [Note: Both related to residential real estate investment. End note.] In November 2018, the Treasurer rejected the buyout of APA, a major gas pipeline owner in Australia, by the Hong Kong-based CKI Group, citing concerns that the purchase would create “undue concentration of foreign ownership by a single company group in our most significant gas transmission business.” Analysis justifying rejections is typically not published.
Competition and Anti-Trust Laws
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) enforces the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 and a range of additional legislation, promotes competition, fair trading and regulates national infrastructure for the benefit of all Australians. The ACCC plays a key role in assessing mergers to determine whether they will lead to a substantial lessening of competition in any market. ACCC also engages in consumer protection enforcement and has recently been given expanded responsibilities to monitor digital industries and the “sharing economy.”
Expropriation and Compensation
Private property can be expropriated for public purposes in accordance with Australia’s constitution and established principles of international law. Property owners are entitled to compensation based on “just terms” for expropriated property. There is little history of expropriation in Australia.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
Australia is a member of the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID Convention) and the New York Convention of 1958 on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. The International Arbitration Act 1974 governs international arbitration and the enforcement of awards.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) is included in seven of Australia’s nine FTAs and 18 of its 21 BITs. AUSFTA establishes a dispute settlement mechanism for investment disputes arising under the Agreement. However, AUSFTA does not contain an investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism that would allow individual investors to bring a case against the Australian government. Regardless of the presence or absence of ISDS mechanisms, there is no history of extrajudicial action against foreign investors in Australia.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
Australia has an established legal and court system for the conduct or supervision of litigation and arbitration, as well as alternate dispute resolutions. Australia is a leader in the development and provision of non-court dispute resolution mechanisms. It is a signatory to all the major international dispute resolution conventions and has organizations that provide international dispute resolution processes.
Bankruptcy is a legal status conferred under the Bankruptcy Act 1966 and operates in all of Australia’s States and Territories. Only individuals can be made bankrupt, not businesses or companies. Where there is a partnership or person trading under a business name, it is the individual or individuals who make up that firm that are made bankrupt. Companies cannot become bankrupt under the Bankruptcy Act though similar provisions (called “administration and winding up”) exist under the Corporations Act 2001. Bankruptcy is not a criminal offense in Australia.
Creditor rights are established under the Bankruptcy Act 1966, the Corporations Act 2001, and the more recent Insolvency Law Reform Act 2016. The latter legislation commenced in two tranches over 2017 and aims to increase the efficiency of insolvency administrations, improve communications between parties, increase the corporate regulator’s oversight of the insolvency market, and “improve overall consumer confidence in the professionalism and competence of insolvency practitioners.” Under the combined legislation, creditors have the right to: request information during the administration process; give direction to a liquidator or trustee; appoint a liquidator to review the current appointee’s remuneration; and remove a liquidator and appoint a replacement.