Foreign ownership of farms needs stronger scrutiny

February 8, 2012

There has always been a place for foreign investment in Australia, including in Australian agriculture. Indeed, there are areas of this great nation that have been developed because of such foreign investment.

An example of this is the Esperance region of Western Australia, which has flourished as a result of American investment in the 1960s and is today one of our prime cropping areas.

There is much to be gained by having other people and nations invest in Australian agriculture. However, foreign investment in Australian food production must be done to support our national interest and not to undermine it.

Foreign investment in housing is already managed in the best interests of our nation. Foreign investment in all residential housing is assessed, with the underlying principle that it must not drive up prices for Australians.

That is good policy. So why is the government abandoning Australian farmers by refusing to apply the same principle to them?

If foreign investment in agriculture can build relationships with other nations that open new trade opportunities and break down trade barriers, then we welcome it.

Such investment should provide new markets and new opportunities.

We welcome foreign investment that is open, honest and transparent. We are not afraid of such investment, because we are neither foolish nor xenophobic.

However, as good shepherds we must also constantly watch for foreign investment that fails to meet these ideals or the national interest.

The recent ABARES report on foreign investment was used by the Labor government to mask very real concerns held by millions of Australians that nobody is on watch-that the shepherd, and that is the government, is in fact asleep.

This report identified that approximately nine per cent of Australian farmland has some degree of foreign ownership.

The government has used this figure to deride those who are concerned about Australia’s sovereignty over its farm and food-producing assets, and many of those are in my electorate.

However, the report deserves far closer scrutiny.

In spite of the superficial nature of the process that was used, the report actually identifies that over three million hectares of Western Australian agricultural land is over half foreign owned-that is, foreign controlled.

When you think about that in practical terms, it equates to half of the area of mainland Tasmania or to a country the size of Belgium.

It is over twice the size of the Forrest electorate, and it is more than all the land west of the line from Bunbury to Albany.

In total, over seven million hectares of Western Australian agricultural land has some level of foreign ownership.

That equates to the entire area of mainland Tasmania.

This is not an insignificant area at all, but I do not hear the government telling Australians this very real and pertinent truth.

Unfortunately, it suits the eyes-closed agenda to say that it is nine per cent, because it sounds so much smaller than three million hectares.

Yet three million hectares might be considered a positive if it meets the key criteria of transparency and openness as well as the national interest test.

These criteria are surely imperative, which is why I was really concerned to learn that recent farm sales to foreign buyers in Western Australia have been subject to secrecy clauses.

Several dairy farms have sold in recent months, but the Australian people are not to be told any of the detail. Is it any wonder that everyday Australians are concerned?

When secrecy replaces transparency, trust is the first casualty. Without transparency, how can we know how much is enough? Currently it is supposed to be nine per cent, according to the government. That might be acceptable, but is 19 per cent okay? Is 29 per cent fine? How much foreign ownership is the limit? More importantly: how will we know when we reach it?

The government has raised the Foreign Investment Review Board benchmark from $231 million to $244 million.

This means that there are almost no Australian farm purchases that would trigger a review.

That means that we might get to that 19 per cent or 29 per cent of foreign ownership and we just would not know about it. We would not know if that were in the nation’s best interests.

Unfortunately, this is the eyes-closed approach of the Labor government. We have no idea what foreign investment is occurring and no idea what level is in the national interest in relation to the nation’s agricultural land. I would ask: are they the shepherds of Australian agriculture or are they simply the sheep?