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Thursday, 1 March 2012
Page: 2550


Mr TRUSS (Wide BayLeader of The Nationals) (16:41): Over recent months in particular there has been widespread concern, especially in regional Australia, about the level of foreign ownership of our land and agribusiness. There is not reliable data available in this country about precisely what levels of foreign ownership currently exist. Only Queensland has a foreign ownership register. The information coming from that register suggests that while foreign ownership of land in that state was relatively stable up until about 2006-07, in the three years to 2009-10 the level of foreign ownership increased from 1.4 million hectares to 4.4 million hectares—a trebling of foreign ownership. When it comes to agribusiness, Foreign Investment Review Board data shows a tenfold increase in investment in agriculture, forestry and fishery agribusiness from an average of $284 million a year in the first half of last decade to over $2.5 billion a year in the three years to 2009-10. Everyone has seen reports, almost daily, of purchases in the sugar, dairy, meat, grain, food processing, chemicals and fertiliser sectors, all of those parts of agribusiness that are so essential to keeping the business in operation.

The reality is that decisions about the future of our country and our food supply are increasingly being made in foreign boardrooms. That is an issue for this country, as we need to prize very highly the important task of guaranteeing our nation's food supply in the future. We first need to have better data about levels of foreign ownership in this country. The US system, which requires annual notification to the federal government by foreign purchasers of US land, is a model that is worthy of consideration for this country. Most purchases of land by foreigners in Australia are not subject to Foreign Investment Review Board consideration. When Labor came to office it lifted the trigger for notification to $230 million and in the midst of the controversy in recent months it has actually increased again to $244 million. We all know that there is not a single farm in this country that is worth $244 million, so effectively none of these land purchases are picked up by this trigger. Indeed, under the US free trade agreement, Americans can buy up to $1 billion worth of land without it going to the FIRB. Curiously, if a foreigner buys a single suburban block or a single suburban house he has to go to the Foreign Investment Review Board, but he can buy the biggest farms in the nation without any consultation whatsoever.

Clearly the FIRB triggers must be lowered, but what many people who are critical of these triggers do not realise is the fact that any purchase by a company owned by a foreign government or a sovereign wealth fund has to go to the Foreign Investment Review Board. That means that controversial purchases, such as those by the Chinese and the Qataris, have in fact been through the Foreign Investment Review Board process. They have all been approved. In fact, it is a very important point to make that the Foreign Investment Review Board has never said no to the purchase of agricultural land in Australia. They have never said no to the purchase of any agribusiness in this country.

So clearly there is a real failing in the way in which the Foreign Investment Review Board undertakes its task. It needs a new policy direction. Agriculture should be put on the sensitive list, like media and defence, so that there can be a proper consideration of the impact for our nation of any purchases in this sector. There need to be new directions given to the Foreign Investment Review Board so that it takes into account our nation's food security when assessing the national interest of any foreign purchase. In addition to that, the board itself of the FIRB needs to be given broader expertise, real business expertise, so that they are better able to assess what is actually in the national interest.

Foreign investment has been important to this country and important also to agriculture. We would not have achieved what we have without that investment and we expect it to continue into the future. But Australia must maintain control of its own destiny. We must know who owns our land and we must be the people who decide under what circumstances they acquire it. The government has been asleep at the wheel on this issue. An incoming coalition government will make sure that Australia maintains control of its own food security. (Time expired)