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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 769

Mr McCORMACK (12:35 PM) —I thank the member for Lyons for filling the breach in place of the member for Forrest, who was in the main chamber speaking about an issue very important to the coalition’s heart—the youth allowance and the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 [2011]—which has been most unfairly dealt with by this Labor government, who do not have a great appreciation or respect for regional areas. Given the fact that she cannot be in two places at once, I am stepping in for the member for Forrest to give her speech on this motion about foreign ownership of land. The member for Forrest says that, in seconding this motion, she does not automatically oppose foreign ownership of agricultural land in Australia but she does oppose the foreign acquisition of Australian rural land in secret or by stealth.

Her office has tried on numerous occasions to compile information on foreign ownership of agricultural land in Australia and has been continually told that that there is no comprehensive source of this information. The other problem that it has encountered is that agricultural land is not separately reported by the Foreign Investment Review Board, which classifies agriculture, forestry and fishing into one category. The member for Forrest notes with interest the 2010 announcement that the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in conjunction with the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, ABARE, would survey the foreign ownership of agricultural land. As the ABS identifies in its explanatory document:

Currently there is very little information available on the level of foreign ownership of agricultural businesses, land and water rights within Australia. Therefore the ABS proposes to collect data on the following:

  • Direct foreign ownership of agricultural businesses in Australia
  • Direct foreign ownership of agricultural land in Australia
  • Direct foreign ownership of water rights (used for agricultural purposes) in Australia

This proposal is to be commended.

Under the current regime, a foreign purchase of agricultural land or business has to exceed a $231 million threshold before the Foreign Investment Review Board must be notified. The current debate on foreign ownership requires accurate data on foreign ownership of rural land and agribusiness. At a Senate Select Committee on Agricultural and Related Industries hearing last year, the Foreign Investment Review Board confirmed that it is possible that a foreign entity could go down to the Murrumbidgee River today and buy every property and not even trigger the interest of their board. That is a reflection on this parliament.

The world population is expected to grow from around six billion today to over nine billion by 2050, with Australia alone set to increase its population by between 35 and 40 million by 2056. With this population growth, cities and urban development will continue to take up more and more of the prime agricultural land. This is of particular concern to the member for Forrest, as a food producer. Given the future challenges of feeding the world, it is vitally important for Australia to have accurate records of who is buying and acquiring our food-producing agricultural land and precious water resources.

This motion is necessary to guide the foreign affairs and trade negotiations of Australia’s future. One of the threats faced by our agricultural sector, if we get this policy wrong, is that of a worsening of an already uneven playing field in world trade. We must avoid situations where foreign owned farms are being granted access into markets that are denied to Australian producers or where Australian farmers and investors are being priced out of the market.

We must also be aware of the closed loop—where a foreign entity or quasi government owned entity buys up tracts of food-producing land and water and restricts the sale or provision of that produce to their own market. There has been a change in focus from foreign investment to foreign ownership and, as a result, many farming industries—for example, dairy with the buy-out of cooperatives—have found that the short-term financial gain to individual members is outweighed by long-term impacts such as reduced farm gate prices though loss of market power.

The Daily Telegraph reported in November last year that foreign investors have snapped up $10 billion of Australia’s prime agricultural land and rural enterprises ‘and no-one is keeping watch’. It also stated:

Australia, with its rich and fertile land and sophisticated farming techniques, is a target for some of the world’s biggest agricultural enterprises.

This is further reasoning that it is time to consider greater supervision of rural land and water sales to overseas interests. In conclusion, I repeat that this motion is not about banning foreign ownership; it is about protecting Australia’s sovereignty and food security by including our agricultural and water resources on the radar of the Foreign Investment Review Board.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr S Georganas)—Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.