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Voice of Regional Australia: The airport, the pilot school and two Chinese companies

Voice of Real Australia is a regular newsletter from Australian Community Media, which has journalists in every state and territory. Sign up here to get it by email, or here to forward it to a friend. Today's newsletter is written by Northern Daily Leader journalist Jamieson Murphy.

Terra firma: The much-talked about Tamworth Airport.

Terra firma: The much-talked about Tamworth Airport.

You'll have to stay with me on this one - it involves an airport, a pilot school and a couple of Chinese companies.

Let me set the scene. Last year in October, Tamworth council announced it had a deal with Virgin Australia to establish a pilot school at the city's airport. You beauty the community thought - more jobs, more money.

However in March, it was revealed the "official launch" had happened in August, two months before the deal had been signed, at a Chinese media-only press conference in Sydney.

Two Chinese companies Winbright and Hainan Aviation, said the plan was to train Chinese students to be pilots in Australia.

At this point, everyone from Virgin to Tamworth's general manager Paul Bennett shot down the Chinese connection.

"Hainan is a part owner of Virgin Australia but we have had no dealings with them," Mr Bennett said.

"Council had never heard of Winbright Aviation until the story was published in national media."

Virgin said it was partnering with a little Port Macquarie-based flight school called Australian International Aviation College (AIAC).

Still with me? Good, because here's the kicker.

AIAC is 80 per cent owned by HNA Group (also owners of Hainan Aviation) and 10 per cent by Winbright - two Chinese conglomerates that have very strong links to the Chinese Communist Party.

When that was revealed last week, Tamworth council changed its tune.

Mayor Col Murray said he was aware AIAC was "90 per cent" owned by the two Chinese companies.

"There was never any withholding of who their partners were, they were clearly explained - not at the very start, but certainly early in the discussions," Cr Murray said.

"[Virgin] brought a delegation down to meet with our councillors, including the Chinese partners. So in my view, Virgin never really deliberately withheld information."

Where to from here?

A Virgin spokeswoman told the Leader on "background information" that the FIRB was not investigating because of the Chinese links, but because "two of our shareholders [Etihad and Singapore] being part government-owned".

However, they declined repeated requests to send this through as an official statement - which in the world of journalism, is usually a good indication that you should question the statement's authenticity.

Back then Prime Minister Scott Morrison was treasurer and he expressed concern about the property portfolio being offered as a single aggregated asset. He reportedly believed it made it difficult for Australian bidders to make a competitive bid.

Now there is nothing wrong with foreign investment - Australia wouldn't be what it is today without it.

But even the most casual consumers of global news would know the Chinese government having influence over an Australian airport could be cause for concern.

Foreign investment is a fine and delicate line to walk - any economist will tell you that we need it.

But whose responsibility is it to make sure those overseas interests have good intentions at heart? Should a local council be expected to weigh up national security issues or potential impacts to international relations?

This week's allegations of corruption involving the gambling giant Crown and favourable visa processing in China - which the Morrison government has ordered the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity to investigate - have made sure that can of worms has been reopened.

And would we be having this same conversation if instead of China, it was a European country, say Poland?

The Tamworth flight school is a cautionary tale, no doubt - but what is it cautioning us about? To have a healthy skepticism of foreign investment or the dangers and missed opportunities that come from ringing the alarm bell every time we hear the word 'China'?

Time will tell.

Jamieson Murphy, Northern Daily Leader journalist

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