THE Coalition government is considering holding a national symposium to address foreign investment in Australian agriculture which could spark potential rule changes.
Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan says he’s been pushing Nationals’ leader and Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce on conducting the forum.
Senator O’Sullivan told Fairfax Agricultural Media the symposium was best suited to be staged in the nation’s capital and could potentially coincide with the annual ABARES Outlook Conference in March held in Canberra.
He said he’d already compiled a comprehensive list of about 130 core stakeholders that are critical to the exercise.
Senator O’Sullivan said he was confident of being able to convince Mr Joyce of the need to hold the symposium and spearhead high-level assessment of the current regulatory regime and hear the thoughts and feelings of those living with the rules.
“I’m hopeful that the deputy Prime Minister is going to lead quite a significant symposium on this question,” he said.
“It’d be much better than a Senate inquiry for the government to have a really collegiate get together with the stakeholders.
“The important thing is to make sure you get every single stakeholder there - from the Country Women's Association to the National Farmers’ Federation and everyone squeezed in between like local government.
“All these people must have something to say about this topic.”
In the previous parliament, the Coalition changed 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.
A recently released draft report by the Productivity Commission from its live inquiry into agricultural red tape has suggested the FIRB increase its screening threshold for testing agricultural land and agribusinesses investments to $252 million.
A public register of foreign ownership that includes water entitlements has also been established by the Coalition.
Data collected by the ATO and provided to the Treasurer is due to be used in periodic reports delivered to the federal parliament and Australian public.
The first report is scheduled for some time this year, summarising the data trends in terms of the overall level of foreign ownership for Australian agricultural land and the main source countries.
In March, an ATO spokesperson said data collected for the Agricultural Land Register by the Commissioner would form the basis of a report due to government in July 2016.
Mr Joyce has been outspoken on foreign investment in recent years attacking Labor's decision to approve selling the 93,000 hectare cotton producing Cubbie Station in South West Queensland in 2012 to a consortium led by Chinese interests.
The Nationals also spoke out strongly against US multinational food-giant Archer Daniels Midland seeking to take-over GrainCorp for $3.4 billion which was blocked in 2013 shortly after the Coalition gained power.
The latest controversy has been around the proposed sale of the Kidman & Co cattle empire to Chinese interests, which covers about 2.5 per cent of the nation's farmland and has been blocked by the Treasurer due to national interest concerns.
Senator O’Sullivan said he would like if the national foreign investment symposium was held “yesterday” but the sooner it occurred “the better”.
“This question continually comes up perennially,” he said.
“We have the Kidman and Co sale on the table at the moment.
“We need to get down to getting some pretty serious guidelines around what we think are the measures and the limits and the thresholds for this sort of investment.
“We’re not against foreign investment – I’m certainly not against foreign investment – but I am against any vertically integrated foreign owned entities that can take commodities away and no profits are recorded in their balance sheets and hence they don’t make a contribution to our nation’s economic health.”
Senator O’Sullivan said it was important the government identified every core stakeholder that needed to attend the symposium “and then pin our ears forward”.
He said the critical question would be asking people what type of regulatory protections they wanted, in considering foreign investment impacts on their local communities and then to settle on “acceptable parameters”.
“I’ve been pushing and urging for a long time for us to find out what’s on peoples’ minds,” he said.
“We’ve changed some rules and we’ve set some rules and we’ve moved the benchmarks from here to there but I want to hear it first hand and lock myself in a room with every single sector that’s got an interest in foreign investment and foreign ownership in agriculture and hear what they’ve got to say.
“And then you can come back and ask me what my view is.”
Senator O’Sullivan said the foreign investment issue was more significant than it had ever been and “it’s time for the conversation”.
He said with open free trade agreements, Australia’s trading partners had prime interest in investing here, but foreign investment rules had worked for some and not others.
“We still have critics of the rules at the moment as they exist and there’s some confusion over them and I think it’s time to at least get some straight talking happening and then it’s a matter for government,” he said.
“If government comes away from such a symposium and decides that there were some powerful arguments made for or against a particular measure then we would need to do it.
“And gee it’s such a novel idea that we might actually listen to the people then decide to do something that they wanted.
“I think it’s such an important question that it deserves a chance of its own.”