Discussion needed on foreign state-owned farm ownership, but perhaps avoid the “hyperbowl”
So the MP With Australia’s Best Interests at Heart, none other than independent Tony Windsor, has thrown his authentic Akubra into the ring and said his two cents about the issue of Chinese state-owned firms buying up Australia’s farms.
“We shouldn’t debate about stopping foreign investment – no one is going to do that – but should foreign governments have freehold ownership over our land?
“It’s something we should debate and look at the distinction between state-owned buyers and others.
And a cursory google search finds all sorts of alarming press about the Chinese government investing in and buying huge swathes of our farmland, including the notable ABC special report provocatively entitled, “Selling the Farm to China”.
Foreign interests including state-owned companies from China and the Middle East are increasingly looking to Australia to secure their food production by purchasing key agricultural assets.
The sale of agricultural land is exempt under Foreign Investment Review Board regulations and the FIRB’s attention is usually triggered only by the sale of companies whose assets exceed a $231 million threshold.
And many are right to be concerned about state-run Chinese firms cashing in on Australia’s farms, but is Liberal senator Bill Heffernan (concerned, in the report above) not playing perhaps a bit of politics here?
It would be wise to keep this in a little perspective. Even when investing as little as $1, state-owned enterprises (SOE) have to have approval from the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB). Why’s that important? Because most of the investments from China come from SOEs, so that $231 million threshold doesn’t apply, and nor does the exemption for agricultural land.
ABS released some land ownership data based on a survey of 11,000 agricultural businesses recently and the study found 89pc of the surveyed agricultural land was entirely Australian owned, while 92pc was majority Australian owned.
So not that much land is full or part foreign owned, and most of that has been approved by the FIRB because at least in China’s case, those investments are from the Chinese state so you can’t really go around attacking China on this one.
For sure, we don’t really know exactly how much farmland Chinese SOEs own, and that’s something that should definitely be rectified, but you can be rest assured it’s not that much, most likely nowhere near proportional to the panic generated over it.
Let’s hope we’ve learned and don’t get suckered into this one, too.