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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 8667

Senator CORMANN (Western AustraliaMinister for Finance and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) (17:58): I have actually answered that question previously. The way I answered this question was not by trying to speak for Senator Whish-Wilson. Senator Whish-Wilson, as the relevant spokesperson for the Australian Greens, is of course free to express his policy aspirations and the policy aspirations of his party. As far as the government's position is concerned, the government's position is clearly and transparently set out in the letter that was co-signed by the Treasurer, the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources and the Leader of the Australian Greens. It commits the government to a process to engage in full public consultation in relation to the proposed introduction of a register of foreign ownership of water entitlements within 12 months. If the government were not to follow through on the commitment that we have made, then the sunset clause which is part of the Australian Greens amendments would come into effect, which in practice would mean that we would have to talk again about the substantive provisions in this bill that is currently before us.

The government in good faith has committed to the Greens as part of the agreement that we have reached to engage in this process, which will involve full public consultation. At the end of it, the intention is to come up with a proposal to set up a register of foreign ownership of water entitlements, which is put forward in the most efficient and effective way possible.

Senator Wong also in her remarks talked about the fact that nobody in the government has ever articulated the need to change the threshold. We have articulated that need—

Senator Wong: In relation to agribusiness.

Senator CORMANN: In relation to agribusiness, of course. What we said in the lead-up to the last election—

Senator Wong interjecting

Senator CORMANN: There was nothing ad hoc about it at all. It was part of our coalition pre-election policy. On this side of government, we have got this old-fashioned view that, once you get into government, having taken a policy to the election, you should implement it. And that is of course what we are doing. We took an explicit policy to the last election. We made decisions on where the appropriate threshold would be and we are now seeking to legislate that commitment that we took to that election. We are very grateful to the Australian Greens for engaging with the government and working with us to find common ground to help facilitate the passage of this legislation.

What I would say is there was a time when Senator Wong suggested that the screening threshold for all assets, including agricultural assets, for Foreign Investment Review Board purposes should be $1 billion. You would be hard pressed to find any piece of agriculture land that would ever be reviewed by the Foreign Investment Review Board under that sort of proposition. Clearly, Senator Wong realised the error of her ways—or maybe it wasn't Senator Wong; maybe it was the Labor Party that imposed a change in position on Senator Wong—because now we hear that, rather than propose a $1 billion screening threshold for agricultural land for Foreign Investment Review Board purposes, according to Labor, it should be $50 million. Labor went from $1 billion to $50 million. We say $15 million, so you are actually much closer to our position now than your original position, which I might loosely describe as the original Wong position.

This is just a debate at the margins. Clearly, you recognised, along with the government and other senators in this chamber, that there is a particular sensitivity when it comes to agriculture land. The economics are quite different. The values involved are quite different to some other sectors in the economy, and what the government is seeking to do by lowering the screening thresholds in relation to agriculture land to $15 million is to give proper recognition to this. This is all part of our broader effort to ensure that there is strong public confidence in the integrity of the foreign investment framework, because we recognise the absolute importance of strong foreign investment flows to help us reach our full potential as an economy moving forward in the same way as foreign investment and foreign labour for that matter has helped us develop the economy successfully in decades gone by—indeed since well before Federation.