Members of the National Party in Australia have made calls for the government to make a stand against the increased foreign ownership of land by introducing tougher foreign ownership rules.
The calls have come as China continue to purchase farmland in the country, increasing their holdings to almost 14.5 million hectares, as reported by abc.net.au. The second annual update from the Australian Tax Office to the Federal Government’s register showed a significant increase in Chinese holdings, though foreign investment in agricultural land has dropped slightly, to 13.6 % from 14.1% in 2016.
New South Wales Nationals Senator, John Williams, says the government should be keeping a close eye on the level of foreign ownership. This he says is for the benefit of food security in the coming years. He says concerns over foreign ownership, despite a slight drop, is still a hotly discussed topic in the National Party area. The UK were found to be the biggest investor in the country, followed closely by China. China recently went from 5th on the list to second.
"I don't care if it's Chinese ownership or whatever ownership...If they want to develop our country and increase output and exports, very good, but they should put that plan forward to the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) in my book, and show how they're going to do it, and then put it in place.", said Senator Williams.
The recent increase in Chinese ownership of farmlands has been put down to the recent number of big sales of larges plots of land. This included the sale of the Kidman Cattle empire and Gina Rinehart, a mining company. Both of which were purchased by Chinese company Shanghai Cred. These two particular deals saw them increase their stakes by 2.6 million hectares.
This overseas investment has made it a lot harder for young farmers trying to get into the industry, according to Victorians Nationals MP Andrew Broad. He says the lands are looked after better by locals, with foreign investors not developing it any further.
"I purchased a farm when I was 22 and I had to compete against my neighbours to buy the farm...I didn't have to compete against a sovereign wealth fund, and as a result of that, that farm gets looked after better, and I see very little example of farms that have been purchased by foreigners that have developed.", said Mr. Broad.
Mr. Broad then called for a cap to be applied to all countries and have it lowered to $5million. Mr. Broad continued by saying claims that foreign investment is needed in the agricultural sector is wrong.
"If you're a US purchaser of agricultural land you don't have to ask the FIRB's permission to purchase that land if the property is under $1.1 billion, which is ridiculously high," he said.
Mr. Broads claims were rejected by the President of the National Farmers’ Federation, Fiona Simson, who says the farm register provides transparency and only highlights the necessity for more foreign investment. This she says is most needed in Northern Australia.
"We've been agnostic at NFF about whether that comes from overseas or whether that in fact comes from onshore Australian investors," said Fiona.
"So I think it's certainly not all about thresholds that we put in and the restrictions around that.", she added.
Ms Simson says she is not concerned by the slight drop in foreign investment, though others such as Malcolm Brennan of law firm King & Woods Mallesons are. Malcolm advises companies on FIRB rules and says it is too early to decide whether this latest decrease is a trend.
"It doesn't have to rise significantly. I'd prefer to see it about the same [but] we need more foreign investment, particularly in the north," he said
Senator Williams will continue the battle to lobby support for the current farm register to give access to more information. He says this is needed to keep a closer eye on whats been sold and to who.
"I think we should get more specific in areas as far as, is it the pastoral country in the west of the NSW, or the Northern Territory or Queensland, or the more settled areas of the farming country where they're actually growing cereal crops?" he said.
"I think more detail needs to put in place so we can keep a very close eye on what is being sold and who owns it.", he concluded.