Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s trip to see President Donald Trump in Washington next week will be bolstered by the most senior business delegation to ever visit the United States, including billionaires Anthony Pratt and Kerry Stokes, to celebrate “100 years of mateship” with administration officials and state governors.
The top tier of business will form part of the charm offensive to strengthen political and economic ties between the US and Australia, with leaders from Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Qantas, Rio Tinto, Lendlease, Orica, Wesfarmers, IFM Investors and Seek among more than 20 business figures set to attend.
Infrastructure investment will be a major talking point between the Australian delegation that includes most state premiers, and Trump administration officials and 40 US state governors, as the White House prepares to unveil its $US1.5 trillion plan for public and privately funded infrastructure.
Mr Pratt, Mr Trump’s friend who is expanding his packaging facilities across the US, said he wanted to support the Prime Minister and business on the mission because the US was Australia’s most important ally and key economic partner.
“There’s more than $1 trillion worth of investment between the two countries, so you can’t overstate the importance of the relationship,” Mr Pratt told The Australian Financial Review.
“I hope to update some of the US governors about the new factories we’re building in their states.”
The high-level trip comes after Mr Trump confirmed on the weekend that Admiral Harry Harris, who has spoken out against China’s rising assertiveness in the Indo Pacific, was his choice to be ambassador to Australia.
Trade and Investment Minister Steve Ciobo, who will join the Prime Minister on the three-day trip late next week, said the CEO group was the “most significant and high level delegation from Australia to the US”.
“It reinforces the strong bonds between Australia and the USA,” Mr Ciobo said.
A big theme of the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington is to commemorate the centenary bond between Australia and the US first formed in the trenches of World War I during the Battle of Hamel in northern France on July 4, 1918. It was the first time American troops offensively fought under the command of a non-American – General Sir John Monash.
The Ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, has been relentlessly advocating the “100 years of mateship” to members of the administration, Congress and state governors.
To build deeper links into the US political system – including with state governors, who have the power to privatise and lease public infrastructure to potential investors from Australia – the government is sponsoring the National Governors Association annual meeting in Washington.
The Australian business delegation will participate and is slated to discuss innovation, infrastructure, energy and trade.
“International co-operation and economic development are two key themes of the NGA Winter Meeting this year, so the Prime Minister’s participation is especially relevant,” NGA chair and Nevada governor Brian Sandoval said in a statement on Friday.
Some of the Republican and Democratic governors are viewed as potential future presidential candidates, allowing the Turnbull government to diversify its relationships at a time of immense political turbulence in Washington.
Mr Turnbull will speak at the meeting on Saturday, February 24, after holding a bilateral meeting with Mr Trump at the White House a day earlier.
In his State of the Union address to Congress last month, Mr Trump called on Republicans and Democrats to unite to fix America’s crumbling roads, bridges, water and energy systems.
However, a major hurdle to having an infrastructure package legislated is that Democrats want to use government money and oppose tax breaks for business, whereas most Republicans are against adding billions more to the country’s debt and prefer incentives for the private sector.
The business group and state leaders – excluding South Australia and Tasmania, which are facing elections – will share Australia’s experience in privatising and leasing public assets, including public-private partnerships and “asset recycling”, which the Trump administration is considering adopting to incentivise states to open up infrastructure to business.
Australian superannuation funds, Transurban, Macquarie Group, Lendlease and Hastings Funds Management are among companies with existing infrastructure exposure in the US and could potentially increase their investments if more assets come on to the market.
Brett Himbury, chief executive of IFM Investors, which owns a US toll road, an oil pipeline and a gas export facility and is assessing new potential investments, said he would talk to state governors about how states such as NSW overcame community resistance to private leasing by reinvesting asset sale proceeds into new projects.
“Given the administration is turning attention to infrastructure, I expect it will be a big part of the discussions across the group,” he said.
“It’s terrific to have the federal level of support both strategically and financially with something like the asset recycling initiative, but ultimately the key decisions and ownership are at the state and local level.”
Mr Hockey, who as treasurer initiated 15 per cent federal incentive payments to states that privatised or leased assets and used the proceeds to build new infrastructure, said last week he had been in discussions with Trump officials and Congress members about Australia’s world-leading infrastructure funding models.
“Governments have run out of money and you haven’t got enough money to be able to build everything that is needed,” he said on the Fox Business News channel, emphasising the need for private sector involvement.
Former Macquarie Group banker DJ Gribbin, an American, is Mr Trump’s top infrastructure adviser, and is known to some of the Australian business figures.
The list of business attendees includes Commonwealth Bank chief executive Ian Narev, Rio Tinto boss Jean-Sebastien Jacques, Qantas chairman Leigh Clifford, Wesfarmers head Rob Scott, Orica chief Alberto Calderon, Lendlease chief Steve McCann, Glencore head of coal Peter Freyberg, Seek CEO Andrew Basset, Corrs Chambers Westgarth chief executive John Denton and Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott.
State leaders scheduled to visit are NSW’s Gladys Berejiklian, Victoria’s Daniel Andrews, Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk, Western Australia’s Mark McGowan, ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner.