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Wednesday, 24 November 2010
Page: 2099

Senator XENOPHON (4:09 PM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I table an explanatory memorandum and seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard and to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

As at 31 December 2009, the level of foreign investment in Australian agricultural land was valued at $1.897 billion.

A quarter of that figure, some half a billion dollars, was in direct investment and the leading investor countries were the US, the UK, Japan, Netherlands, China and Singapore.

But while we know these broad figures, what we don’t know is the detail.

And it is concerning that we may be selling off our agricultural land, and have no way of knowing to whom.

Currently, a potential private foreign investor only needs to tell the Government it’s looking at buying land or an asset if the purchase price is over $231 million.

But $230 million would buy a fair share of prime producing land in South Australia’s Riverland … and the Government would never know.

According to media reports, the buy-up of Australian agricultural assets has become even more aggressive since the global food shortage of 2008.

A recent report named China, South Korea, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states as the buyers who have become most aggressive in their purchases.

These are countries that are looking to protect their own food security, and we cannot fault them for that.

But we have to acknowledge that our poor foreign investment standards put our own agricultural industry at risk.

In New Zealand, the Overseas Investment Act of 2005 established an Overseas Investment Office to oversee foreign investments.

It’s similar to the Foreign Investment Review Board here in Australia but I think we have a lot to learn from our neighbours across the Tasman.

Under the New Zealand regime, a foreign investor requires consent from the Government for an investment in rural land if it exceeds five hectares.

That is, New Zealand recognises that rural land is “special” and therefore there needs to be subject to serious consideration of any applications to purchase it by foreign entities.

There are even tighter restrictions if the land is near a conservation reserve or adjoins a foreshore.

We used to say “Australia rode on the sheep’s back” but now it seems we’re selling the wool, the sheep and the land.

But farm land is not our only concern.

Back in September, the Sydney Morning Herald had a front page story with the headline, ‘Thirsty foreigners soak up scarce water rights’.

The story went on to tell how international investors are becoming increasingly interested in our water market, given the value of the product and the lax investment rules.

This article made clear that foreign speculators had already bought billions of litres of water rights in Australia’s most strategic food producing areas, and are waiting to seek advantage from whatever fallout the final Murray-Darling Basin Plan will cause.

There is no denying that foreign investment is an important part of our economy.

But this legislation will prevent us from selling off our backyard before we realise what we’ve done and it’s too late.

This Bill will put into legislation a national interest test, which the Government currently uses as ‘Guidelines’ in its determinations but which needs to go further.

In New Zealand, legislation sets out specific criteria by which the Treasurer needs to consider applications of foreign investment and by applying these to potential investments in Australia it will enable greater scrutiny to be applied.

This Bill will also lower the threshold from $231 million to 5 hectares, so that any interest in Australian agricultural land greater than 5 hectares must be subject to application to the Treasurer.

This is to enable more potential foreign investment to come to the attention of the Treasurer so that they can make informed policy decisions about whether or not to approve the application.

The fact is we do not know enough about the current levels of foreign investment in Australia, particularly in agricultural land, and we do not have a mechanism to monitor it.

I am encouraged by the Government’s commitment to improve data in this area, announcing on Tuesday 23, November that it will seek information from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation and ABARE.

This Bill will require the online publication of applications of interest in Australian agricultural land, and for the status of these to be updated as the application proceeds.

This process, coupled with the retrospective data the Government will be compiling, will give us the information we need about the current state of play so that we can be informed to make good policy decisions for the future.