FEDERAL Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce has led a feisty defence of the Coalition government’s decision to push back on the proposed sale of the Kidman and Co cattle empire to a joint venture with 80 per cent Chinese interests.
Last week Treasurer Scott Morrison declared his preliminary view was that the proposed $370 million Kidman transaction, with 20pc provided by Australian Rural Capital, was contrary to the national interest.
It came after he announced on April 20 that he’d asked Treasury to investigate any national interest concerns with the large land sale to provide him with sufficient time to consider the complex matter.
Mr Morrison said he made his concerns known to the applicant and provided them with a natural justice period to respond and consider how they wish to proceed, by budget day tomorrow.
He said he had concerns about the form in which the Kidman portfolio had been offered as a single aggregated asset which rendered it difficult for Australian bidders to make a competitive bid.
The Kidman board are now considering their options and have said they acknowledge the Treasurer's statement and his preliminary view were now considering the best way forward.
But the government’s move drew criticism from the Labor with Opposition leader Bill Shorten who said the Kidman move was in the best political interest of Malcolm Turnbull and Mr Morrison.
“They said they needed 90 days to review the decision and Mr Morrison miraculously did it nine days,” he said.
“I think it's much more to do with politics and a lot less to do with policy.”
Mr Shorten said the government was also sending mixed messages to Asia about whether or not the Australia wanted foreign investment which was “bewildering”.
“The truth of the matter is the government was totally asleep at the wheel when they leased out the Port of Darwin forever in a day to Chinese interests without proper due diligence,” he said.
“Now on the Kidman, they have ricocheted back the other way.
“Does anyone seriously believe that this Liberal government would have given it a second thought to Kidman property if it weren't looking down the barrel of an election?
“This is a government for whom politics always trumps policy.”
But Mr Joyce hit back on ABC radio today saying last week’s decision sent an “unmistakable message that our nation will determine who invests in our nation”.
He said foreign investment transactions were “overwhelmingly” approved by the government and on the odd occasion “we say no”.
“We retain the right to say no,” he said.
Mr Joyce said the national interest question on a Chinese company owning 80pc of Kidman was a good one to put to the Treasurer and Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB).
But he said the deal represented an “incredibly large” portion of land equating to 1 per cent of the total size of Australia and 2.5pc of the nation’s pastoral land; a view reflected by Mr Morrison.
“Name another property that comes clearly to mind that we’ve blocked?” he said.
“Let’s not get carried away that we’re blocking every sale.
“We still have FIRB and on certain occasions, on rare occasions, we retain the right to say no.”
Mr Joyce said if the government never said no to foreign investment proposals they might as well get rid of the FIRB and say “the whole thing’s a farce and anybody can buy anything”.
He said Japan and China didn’t allow foreign land sales as did many US States, while NZ and Europe had rules that were vastly more restrictive than Australia which remained “the most liberal nation on earth for investment by foreigners”.
“Yet people have the temerity to say because this government dares block one (foreign investment proposal) we’re going to absolutely throw the teddy out of the cot,” he said.
“Well I’m afraid they’re just going to have to do that; they can stand on one side and I will stand on the other side.
“I will back our decision in that we have the right, and in fact the obligation at times, to say no.”
Mr Joyce said foreign investors were “lined up out the door, down the street, over the hill and far away, still waiting to buy land”.
“They are not going anywhere – it’s still happening,” the Nationals leader said.
“It’s happening in my district – it’s happening in every district.”
Mr Joyce said according to ABS figures, Australia was heading towards having two-and-a-half times the land mass of Victoria, fully or partially foreign-owned.
He said in contrast to the Coalition, the ALP supported a “mechanism” to “endear” themselves towards people whole live their lives “collecting commissions from property sales, in the centre of Sydney”.
“What the Labor party are offering is a no-holds barred anything goes approach to the sale of Australian land to foreigners,” he said.
“If they want to go to an election with that (policy) well and good – but we’re going to make sure that our approach, in going to an election, is to show that we have a responsible but dutiful oversight over who owns what in our country.”
Mr Joyce said a large portion of Australian agriculture was foreign owned and always had been but the argument was currently about where to draw a line in the sand.
He said over $2 trillion was held in Australian superannuation funds but only 0.3pc of it was invested in local agriculture with no major superfund holding more than 1pc of their total portfolio in rural assets; despite the sector’s strong performance.
Independent SA Senator Nick Xenophon welcomed the Treasurer’s ‘preliminary decision’ saying it highlighted the need for real reform on foreign investment regulations.
“The current foreign investment framework is as clear as mud and as weak as water,” he said.
“I just hope this preliminary decision isn’t overturned once the election is over.”
Senator Xenophon said there was “no way” Australia’s biggest private land holding, with 101,000 square kilometres, covering three states and a territory, should fall into foreign ownership.
But Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen said Mr Morrison’s approach to Kidman and Co was “very unusual, highly irregular”.
“What is important in foreign investment is stability, certainty and consistency and Scott Morrison is completely bungling the process,” he said.
“Chinese investors more broadly will be asking ‘is Australia still a good place to do business?’
“They will be asking more broadly, if we put in a big foreign investment claim, close to an election, will we be played politics with?
“I think that’s the sort of impact it will have in China and with foreign investors more broadly.”