Securing the Narrative: How the Ausgrid Deal was a Tipping Point for Australian Media

Standing in front of two Australian flags on 11 August 2016, Scott Morrison, then federal treasurer, declined to answer a reporter’s question about the nature of the national security threat that had stopped him from agreeing to let the State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC) buy a ninety-nine year lease for 50.4 per cent of Ausgrid, the poles and wires transmission company in NSW: ‘The only person who’s security-cleared in this room to be able to hear the answer to that question is me.’ The statement marked an inflection point in the reporting of Australia’s investment relationship with China. By refusing to answer the question, Morrison invoked a convention more familiar to foreign policy reporters than business reporters, that pronouncements based on national security were beyond interrogation, indeed that business journalists shared with policy makers a responsibility for protecting national security by not asking questions.

Chinese companies were quick to spot the changing investment environment. Since 2016, Chinese investment in Australia has fallen sharply every year from US$11.6bn to a low in 2021 of just US$585m. Despite KPMG & University of Sydney reporting that Chinese investment in Australia had risen a staggering 143 percent in 2022, that investment remains lower than it had been in 2007 — and continues to be viewed with suspicion with recent calls for a widening array of industries which should be off-limits for Chinese investors on national security grounds despite the high-profile attempts this year by Labor government ministers to re-animate the investment climate.

Chinalco a Lively Debate

In 2008, in the early days of the new Labor government of Kevin Rudd, journalists had plenty to say when Chinalco, China’s biggest aluminium producer, made a dawn raid on 12 percent of Rio Tinto Plc’s dual-listed stock in London before the market opened. The US$14.1 billion investment was the largest investment to date by a Chinese company in Australia. Far from being alarmed, Australian journalists and commentators were fascinated with the boldness of the Chinese move and captivated by the dilemma that it presented to Treasurer Wayne Swan and the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB), the body which must ensure that foreign investment is in Australia’s national interest.

During Chinalco’s sixteen-month campaign for Rio, journalists at three of Australia’s leading newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), The Australian, and The Australian Financial Review (AFR) wrote 1,461 pieces on the subject. These pieces expressed every view under the sun, but the one thing they missed was what Morrison called for eight years later — a sense of journalism’s shared responsibility for national interest or national security.

From the start of the ‘Going Global’ strategy 走出去战略 announced by Chinese premier Jiang Zemin in March 2000, Chinese investment abroad had been variously welcomed and viewed with suspicion, depending on how the benefits were distributed. This was true in Australia as in the rest of the world. British journalist Ben Chu, reflecting back on this period in 2013, coined the ugly contraction ‘Changst’ (‘China Angst’) to describe how fellow journalists expressed rising concern about the rapid expansion of China’s economic influence, even as they expressed admiration for the speed of its development.[1] The years between the start of China’s ‘Going Global’ project, super-charged by its 2001 entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and the glorious spectacle of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, saw the publication of thousands of news articles and hundreds of thousands of words extolling China’s meteoric economic rise. But the framing of that rise was also frequently cast within the context of global competition, one that commentators fretted China was destined to win.

When Chinalco made its move in 2008, there was another factor at play. BNP Paribas pulled the trigger on the official start of the Global Financial Crisis in August 2007 when it admitted it did not know how to value assets on its balance sheet. The admission marked the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ moment for complicated credit assets loosely based on US sub-prime mortgages unfortunately held by almost every major bank. At the start of the deal, banking problems in Europe and the United States looked comfortably far from Australia, but by the time the Rio/Chinalco deal had collapsed in June 2009, the effects of the subsequent global credit crunch and the China-driven commodities super cycle had changed everything. The United States and Europe descended into a long-running recession. China, meanwhile, powered by government spending, roared ahead, pulling Australia — with its vast supplies of iron ore, copper, and coal — along with it.

An analysis of the business reporting of the Rio/Chinalco deal in The Australian, the AFR and the SMH shows very little ‘Changst’. In total between 1 percent and 7 percent of the articles published about the Chinalco bid were classified as ‘China Threat’ stories — stories where the primary sources and main thrust of the article suggested that Chinalco’s bid would be harmful to Australia.[2] A more detailed breakdown of articles over the 16-month period of the bid shows that as the GFC worsened and the credit crunch started to bite, Chinese investment was looked upon much more favourably — ‘threat’ stories disappeared altogether. Conversely, as the commodities super-cycle ramped up and Rio, and Australia as a whole, started to benefit from sharply increasing prices (driven by Chinese demand), some ‘threat’ stories started to emerge as it became clearer that a stronger Rio did not need Chinese investment so badly.

The waxing and waning of enthusiasm for the deal was part of robust debate on the business pages of the country’s newspapers as politicians, economists, business leaders, commentators and journalists considered the merits of the Chinalco proposal. Media academic Aeron Davis refers to this sort of debate as an elite discourse network — where a tiny group of people in powerful positions talk to and about each other in the financial pages of national newspapers.[3] This was elite debate, but at least there was debate. After the Ausgrid decision Morrison effectively called for the end of debate — at issue was security and questions would not be answered.

Moral Panic over the Port

In 1972, Stanley Cohen popularised the term ‘moral panic’: a situation where ‘claims-makers’, often politicians with the help of media, galvanise public support against a ‘folk devil’ — an ‘unambiguously unfavourable’ actor. [4] The ‘folk devil’ in Chinese foreign direct investment in Australia in the 2010s was the AU$506m sale of a 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin in 2015 to a subsidiary of Shandong Landbridge.

The sale by the Country Liberal-led Northern Territory government was, at the time, exempt from FIRB investigation. In the rancorous aftermath — where hundreds of articles questions if this was a danger to national security — Scott Morrison suggested that the federal government barely knew the sale was taking place. If that was true, he was not the only one not paying close attention. The sale initially attracted thirty-three bidders. Yet The Australian covered it in passing in just nine round-up stories before the deal closed on 13 October, 2015. The AFR showed a little more interest, with twenty stories that mentioned the sale, including eleven explicitly focusing on the bidders. Landbridge was first mentioned as a bidder just one month before the deal was due to close. This stands in contrast with the forensic coverage of other previous foreign direct investment deals such as the Rio Tinto or later Ausgrid examples.

Even when the Port of Darwin lease deal was announced and in the first few days following, there were few stories. Journalists were slow to grasp the security implications, which later became an all-consuming focus of reporting. At first, The Australian focused on the windfall for the ‘cash-strapped NT state’ as well as lauding Landbridge’s plans to improve the port’s refrigeration storage facilities for beef exports. The AFR focused on Landbridge’s plan to expand the port to accommodate cruise ships and build luxury hotels, potentially transforming the tourist economy of the Top End. The SMH didn’t report the deal at all.

It took two days after the deal had first been announced before the first journalists raised security concerns. In a 15 October story entitled Senior Defence official raises security concerns over Darwin port lease to Chinese-owned company Landbridge, the ABC’s political editor Chris Uhlmann quoted an ‘unnamed senior defence official’. This marked the start of a years-long dissection of the anatomy of the deal, which worked to whip up a moral panic. Within a month, The Australian would publish an exclusive story based on unnamed defence sources claiming that Landbridge was ‘a commercial front for the PLA’. Thereafter, despite its denials, the company was regularly referred to in the press as being ‘PLA-linked’.


In the beginning, the sale of a 99-year lease of 50.4 per cent of Ausgrid, the poles-and-wires infrastructure business in NSW, seemed uncontroversial. Chinese corporations had invested in Australia’s energy sector for several years, and owned generation, transmission and retail energy companies. The deal was just one in a number of privatisations planned as part of Premier Mike Baird’s ‘asset recycling’ scheme — whereby the NSW government planned to use the proceeds of infrastructure sales to invest in further state-wide infrastructure improvements. Indicative bids were due in February 2016, with completion due mid-year. Press coverage of the deal was extensive — almost 100 stories written in The Australian, 140 in the AFR, and 25 in the SMH from the start of the year. But how they covered the deal differs significantly before and after the July 2016 federal election.

The election was a close one. The Coalition held the House of Representatives by just one seat, and did not have a majority in the Senate. The Senate saw a return from the political wilderness for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, which won four seats, and held similar anti-China sentiment to independent Senators Bob Katter and Nick Xenophon; they all demanded greater influence over policy. The number of seats held by representatives of smaller parties and independents led to journalists quoting them more frequently and at greater length. Populist and hardline protectionist statements appeared more often in the business pages of publications which had previously editorialised in favour of free market principles.

In press coverage of the Ausgrid deal, both politicians outside government and inside the Coalition, where nationalist factions were gaining power, raised national security concerns with increasing frequency.

Of the Ausgrid stories written in The Australian before the election, just 17 percent mentioned national security or national interest (two different terms often used interchangeably). After the election 68 percent of stories mentioned national security or national interest. The situation was similar in the AFR where stories mentioning national security or national interest increased from 8 percent before the election to 38 percent after and in the SMH where it went from zero to 66 percent. In many cases, the same politicians were making the same points that they did in 2008 during Chinalco’s bid for Rio, but this time there was dramatically less opposition. Similarly, ‘China threat’ stories, which during the Rio Tinto bid constituted 1 to 7 percent of coverage in the three newspapers, rose to between 8 and 25 percent.

In the days that followed Morrison’s rejection of the Ausgrid bid for unspecified national security reasons on 12 August 2016, there was a sharp increase in news stories about Chinese investment which quoted ‘security agencies’ or the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), as journalists started to follow the government’s lead.

Looking at the role of elite opinion at times of national tension, US researcher Daniel Hallin found that when elite opinion is divided, the press reflects robust debate, but when elite opinion is united, debate is limited to what he refers to as the ‘sphere of consensus’. [5] Opinions that fall outside of the sphere of consensus are seen as divergent, minority and easily dismissed. Researchers generally consider journalists, however neutral they may believe they are, to be elite opinion makers. In interviews about their coverage of the Ausgrid bid, journalists who reported daily on the deal were aware of the shift in sentiment, prioritising security. One political reporter said of the Coalition government: ‘maybe they had been a little bit captured by the national security establishment. But I think we have got to give the government some benefit of the doubt… we make a lot of money out of foreign investment so there’d have to be a very good reason why you’d be knocking it back.’

The new reliance on security sources was noticed by other journalists although it was not universally welcomed. One journalist pointed out the impossibility of checking, let alone double-checking, information from off-the-record security sources: ‘You can’t challenge it. You can’t ring up another person and cross reference. It’s all classified.’ He said it was clear that the ‘received wisdom’ regarding stories about Chinese investment had changed. Seeing the strong tendency to approach stories from a security angle, he said, ‘you socialise yourself in a kind of ecosystem’ — the sphere of consensus. When ‘the senior guys are writing like that’, that becomes the ‘story’ and the ‘flavour’.

A New Era or Same Old?

The Labor government which took over in 2022 has made a deliberate effort to restore some cordiality to the trading environment with China, with Foreign Minister Penny Wong celebrating successes getting Chinese tariffs dropped on barley and wine. Some companies were quick to spot the commercial opportunity of the thaw — Rio Tinto once again leading the charge. Just months after the new government took office, Rio announced a AU$2bn joint venture in the Pilbara with China’s Baowu Steel Group, while offshore in Guinea, Rio has continued to push forward this year with its one-time partner Chinalco in the world’s biggest iron ore project. But what looks like an opportunity for some is seen as a risk by others. ASPI warned in September that Chinese companies held a dominant position in critical minerals and called for a ban on Chinese investment in ‘strategically essential commodities’, calling it a ‘national security issue’. Yet the report was not reported with the reverence that might have been accorded during the Morrison years. Instead, the AFR commissioned James Laurenceson from the Australia-China Relations Institute of UTS to examine the claims. He accused ASPI of mischaracterising some of the joint ventures in a way that was ‘disingenuous at best’ by ignoring the majority US partner in one of the Australia–China–US ventures and cast doubt on a notion of national interest that excluded economic interest.

The tussle for supremacy between economic and security interests — Tony Abbott’s fear and greed — is sure to continue in Canberra’s corridors of power in 2024. But it should also be welcomed back into the pages of Australia’s leading newspapers. Some debates are too important to be secret.


[1] Ben Chu, Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China Is Wrong, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013.

[2] This analysis is based on unpublished PhD research of more than 2,000 news stories, features and comment pieces in The Australian, the AFR, and the SMH published on Chinese foreign direct investment, between 2008–2020, carried out by the author.

[3] Aeron Davis, ‘Whither Mass Media and Power? Evidence for a Critical Elite Theory Alternative’, Media, Culture & Society, vol.25, no.5, (2003): 669–690.

[4] Stanley Cohen, Folk devils and moral panics: The creation of the Mods and Rockers, London: Routledge, 1972.

[5] Daniel Hallin, ‘The media, the war in Vietnam, and political support: A critique of the thesis of an oppositional media,’ The Journal of Politics, vol.46, no.1 (1984): 2–24.

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