Reporter - Sue Neales
Former trade minister Andrew Robb has accepted a new position in which he will use his close China ties to help secure more than $1 billion for an Australian prawn farming company.
Mr Robb, who completed the China-Australia free-trade agreement before his retirement at the July election, will become a “strategic adviser” to the publicly listed Seafarms Group for an undisclosed retainer fee.
The former trade minister’s role is to assist with key introductions to high-level Chinese government officials, private companies and high-net-worth individuals in China and to secure Asian investment partners for Seafarms’ ambitious $2bn Project Sea Dragon on coastal Legune Station, 120km northeast of Kununurra.
The world’s biggest black tiger prawn project is close to securing final environmental and indigenous land title approvals for the first of its 10,000ha of prawn ponds on floodplains near the mouth of the Victoria River, on Joseph Bonaparte Gulf.
Mr Robb — who attracted controversy last month by becoming a “high-level economic consultant” to China’s Landbridge group, which secured a 99-year lease of Darwin Port for $506 million — confirmed the new appointment yesterday.
“I’ve been enthusiastic and excited about the potential of this project for three years,” Mr Robb told The Weekend Australian. “Once the approvals are there, I will concentrate on the money side of things; I’m advising on the financial side and helping them find prospective investors.”
Mr Robb, who visited the remote Legune Station last week, said Chinese and Japanese investors would be “falling over themselves” to invest the required $1bn to $1.5bn in the new prawn farm, with many also looking to secure supply from the 120,000-tonne annual tiger prawns production.
He said construction of the giant prawn farm — which he likened in scale and cost to a remote mining project — and its Kununurra prawn processing plant would be the catalyst for new global interest in north Australian development.
“The scale of this might be breathtaking but it’s much less money and with far more certain outcomes than many mining projects,” Mr Robb said. “And once you get one big project like this away in northern Australia, it changes attitudes around the world to the region’s potential.”
Mr Robb, who also is starting an investment fund focusing on foreign investors to back agricultural projects, expects Chinese businesses impressed by the Seafarms project to invest heavily in ports, dams, food processing facilities and associated agricultural infrastructure across the north.
Seafarms Group chief executive Ian Trahar said Mr Robb was “highly experienced” at doing deals in Asia. “It certainly doesn’t present any sort of conflict as far as we are concerned,” he said.
Mr Trahar emphasised Mr Robb would not be lobbying Canberra for his company. Under the Statement of Ministerial Standards, former ministers are not allowed to lobby the government until 18 months after resigning.