THE volume of Australian agricultural property owned by the Chinese is minuscule compared to the area purchased by United Kingdom investors, however the nation’s overall level of foreign agricultural investment is expanding.
That information and other fresh data is set to be revealed in the first report from the federal government’s new register of foreign agricultural land ownership being released today.
Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison will present the report’s findings to federal parliament next week on the foreign farmland register that’s being administered by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO).
The register was established under legislative changes pushed and introduced by the federal Coalition in the previous parliament to tighten scrutiny of foreign ownership in agriculture and increase public transparency.
Overall, the report said that from June 30 this year 13.6 per cent or 52.1 million hectares of Australia’s total agricultural land of 384.6m/ha was foreign owned.
Of that overall total, 9.4m/ha was record as being under freehold title and 43.4m/ha held as leasehold.
Livestock production represented the highest use of foreign-owned agricultural land by area with 45.8m/ha (88 per cent) followed by cropping at 1.5m/ha (2.8pc).
Chinese foreign ownership has ignited controversial media headlines and public debate in recent times, especially the federal government’s pushback on selling the Kidman & Co cattle empire when assessed against the national interest - but the register’s figures showed a different story.
It said the UK with 27.5m/ha was the leading source country for foreign ownership of Australian farmland, representing a whopping 52.7pc of the total landmass held by overseas interests and 7.2pc of the nation’s total agricultural area.
In comparison, China was positioned fifth on the register’s list of the 10 leading nations, owning 1.5m/ha of Australian farmland or 2.8pc of the foreign-owned total.
China’s farmland volume represents just 0.4pc of the nation’s entire agricultural area.
The USA was second on the top-10 list with 7.7m/ha (14.8pc), followed by the Netherlands holding 2.98m/ha (5.7pc) and Singapore with 1.9m/ha (3.6pc).
China headed the Philippines (1.1m/ha); Switzerland (1.1m/ha); Jersey (0.9m/ha); Indonesia (0.8m/ha); and Japan (0.7m/ha).
Queensland topped the list of States with 17.7m/ha of foreign-owned agricultural land followed by the NT with 15.2m/ha, WA on 8.8m/ha, SA having 7.2m/ha, NSW/ACT with 2.4m/ha, Victoria on 607,000ha and Tasmania at 342,000ha.
However, Tasmania’s 342,000ha represented 21.8pc of that State’s total agricultural area of 1.57m/ha.
The NT’s 15.2m/ha of foreign-owned agricultural land represented 30pc of its total agricultural landmass of 50.3m/ha; Queensland’s 17.7m/ha was 13pc of its 135.9m/ha, SA’s 7.2m/ha was 15.6pc of its 45.8m/ha; WA’s 8.8m/ha was 10.9pc of its 81.3m/ha; Victoria’s 607,000ha was 5.1pc of its 12m/ha; and the NSW/ACT’s 2.4m/ha was 4.1pc of its 75.4m/ha.
Acting Prime Minister and Agriculture and Water resources Minister Barnaby Joyce said the report was the first comprehensive data on the actual level of foreign ownership of agricultural land in Australia and provided the basic transparency necessary to ensure oversight and confidence in agricultural investment.
Mr Joyce said the common perception that the level of foreign ownership had been increasing “seems confirmed” by the report’s findings.
He said previous estimates by ABS surveys found that at June 2013, 12.4pc or 49.6m/ha out of 400m/ha of Australian farmland was foreign owned.
“This has also increased on the December 2010 survey estimate of 11.3pc or 44.9m/ha out of 398m/ha being foreign owned,” he said.
“The land register is giving us the first comprehensive baseline picture of foreign ownership of Australian agricultural land.
“From now on the annual reports from the land register will give us more accurate data on which to base public discussion.”
Mr Morrison said foreign investment was integral to Australia’s economy and contributed to growth, productivity and created jobs.
But he said the community must have confidence that this form of investment was in the national interest.
“The Turnbull government understands that trade and foreign investment has always created jobs in Australia for Australians, driven our economic growth and always will,” he said.
“With more than $3 trillion worth of foreign investment in Australia today, we cannot afford to risk our economic future by engaging in protectionism.
“The land register is part of the Turnbull government’s package of measures to strengthen Australia’s foreign investment regime which will better help to protect our national interest.”
In administering the register, the ATO receives information directly from foreign investors and any with an interest in agricultural land are required to register that interest, regardless of the land’s value.
The ATO matches land titles, immigration and other third party data sources to identify foreign investors who may not have recorded their land on the Agricultural Land Register.
A stocktake was conducted between July 1 last year and February this year to enable existing foreign person land holders to register their land.
The Coalition has altered the Foreign Investment Review Board’s (FIRB) rules for examining potential foreign investments by lowering the trigger threshold on land acquisitions to $15 million and to $55m for agribusiness proposals.
New Maranoa LNP MP David Littleproud today said he welcomed a mature discussion on foreign investment - based on fact, not emotions - and supported LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan’s call to hold a national symposium on the topic.
Mr Littleproud said a national symposium could spearhead a high-level assessment of the current regulatory system and gather feedback from stakeholders interacting with the rules.
“Every stakeholder needs to be involved in this because we need to get a clear picture, based on facts, about what’s going on,” he said.
“Now we need to take the next step and it’s my belief that a productivity test is the key and needs to be explored during a national symposium.
“The government's framework on foreign investment balances foreign investment with the need to reassure the community our national interests are being protected.”