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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 8664


Senator WILLIAMS (New South Wales) (17:43): I rise to make a brief contribution to this. I want to put some facts on the record here. In opposition, my now leader, or my then leader as well—we are pretty consistent with our leaders in the National Party!—Mr Warren Truss, chaired a committee which involved people like the now foreign minister, Julie Bishop, and the recent Treasurer, Joe Hockey. It was about this very issue of foreign investment and foreign ownership of land.

I want to put on the record that I am certainly not against foreign investment. I will give you an example: Chinese company, Shanghai Zhongfu, has won the bid to lease and develop 13,400 hectares of land in the north of the state. This refers to the Ord River scheme, where the state and federal governments—the Western Australian government and the federal government—spent some $500 million building the roads and irrigation channels et cetera. Kimberley Agricultural Investment, an Australian company owned by Shanghai Zhongfu, is set to construct a $250 million sugar mill near Kununurra, where it plans to produce and harvest four million tonnes of cane a year and about 500,000 tonnes of export sugar crystal.

This is investment. It is real investment that grows production and grows jobs. I think there are going to be some 450 jobs up there, mainly for Aboriginal people. It grows exports. It grows GDP. It grows tax-take for Canberra. It is an investment that grows the production of our country. When this was announced, I did not hear one National Party senator or MP complain about that one bit. It was a new investment, a growth in our country.

It is when we have fully-established farms and we simply sell them off—that is when I have a serious problem, because those farms are at peak production. They might be in the New England area, where I live, and they might be grazing country that is well-fenced and into holistic grazing. They have been pasture improved, they have been fertilised and they have been watered well. When we sell farms like that, where does the profit go?

I will give you an example. American super funds have been buying farms up in northern New South Wales. I have asked this question of many people. When an American super fund buys our farm, and that farm makes a profit—and I am well aware that they do not make profits every year; I have had a lifetime of that—that profit is taken back to America, instead of being spent in the town of Inverell. How is that good for Inverell? No-one has ever answered the question.

When it comes to the register, I think this is a very good idea. In fact, it was Mr Rudd, in a previous government, who said he would establish a national register of our land. That is what he said. Of course, what did he do? He did absolutely nothing. So the register needs to be set up. It will be set up by the end of December. Foreign owners of land must register with the ATO by the end of December.

I want to make the point that I distinguish between foreign investment and foreign takeover. Cubby Station is at maximum peak production, maximum water allowance, maximum irrigation and maximum development. When the foreigners bought it, they could not increase production—it had already peaked; it is at its cap. They are not employing any more people, but they will take the profit out of that property when they make a profit on it. If they have water, they will certainly do that.

I want to quote Senator Wong from The Australian:

We will move in the Senate to amend the legislation to remove the requirements for FIRB screening of investments in agribusiness worth more than $55m.

Well, Senator Wong, it is currently at $37.8 million. That is what it is. If you want to buy a business in Australia—an agribusiness, or any business—the limit is $252 million; anything above that has to go to FIRB. But if you want to buy more than 15 per cent of, say, a $300 million business—15 per cent of $252 million is $37.8 million—so the level is actually $37.8 million now. When some foreign company wants to buy into an agribusiness, or any business here, once they get to $37.8 million dollars at 15 per cent it goes through FIRB. This bill is saying that for agribusinesses that might be worth $100 million that if it is a $55 million portion or more that they wish to buy—it might be a $100 million business and they want to buy 80 per cent, $80 million worth—that will go through FIRB under these new regulations. So there will actually be two criteria there.

I want to make it clear that I am not against foreign investment, so long as it increases jobs, increases production, increases exports, increases GDP and increases the tax take for Canberra. That it is a win-win all the way through. It is quite amazing. We need a lot of investment in our housing industry. We have these regulations, especially in the cities, of course, all across Australia, that foreigners cannot have a free for all buying houses. We have had it where they can just buy farms. Why the difference? That is what this bill does. The coalition, working in opposition, took this to the last election—that this would put in place this very criteria—to see that we actually monitor who owns our farms. We believe that about 12 per cent of our properties are now foreign owned—12 per cent of Australia. Qatar made it perfectly clear: they are buying prime land in Victoria—what for? To take food back to their country.

I want to see us grow the food and sell the food to those countries and keep the profits here. People will say, 'You can't take the land with you. If they buy land they cannot take the land with them.' No, you cannot. But you can take what you grow on the land. Then you can even go down the road of transfer pricing and avoiding the tax system. Ask Senator Heffernan about that.

We need to scrutinise. The real case we are facing, the real situation, is that by 2050 we are going to have more than nine billion people on this planet. The big issue is going to be food security. If you do not control your land, you do not control what you grow on that land and you lose control of your food supply. When we have to feed over 9.3 billion people—by 2050 is the estimation—food is going to be the big issue. We are seeing it now. Look at the price of cattle. Look at the price of land. Look at the price of mutton. They are magnificent, and finally bringing some good wealth to those hardworking people in rural Australia who deserve it. It is about time they had their turn. They deserve to get a fair go. It is good to see they are getting it now.

So that is why I support this legislation. I thank Senator Whish-Wilson and others in the Greens for getting behind it. I appreciate it very much, because I am of the firm belief that if we want to have a willy-nilly sell-off of our farmland then look at other countries. Look at developing countries; go to Thailand—you cannot buy more than 49 per cent of any business there. You would only be a minor shareholder. Go to America. Who owns the land? America is controlled by the states in most respects. Many states say that unless you are an American citizen you cannot buy land. Or go across to New Zealand. Five hectares? You want to buy more than five hectares? You have to go through their foreign investment review board.

Senator Xenophon: Or less if it's by the sea or by a river.

Senator WILLIAMS: Or less, as Senator Xenophon says, if it is prime land by a river or whatever. We are tightening our control and monitoring of who owns our land and who is buying our land. Some people seem to disagree with that. I encourage foreign investment if they want to go up the Top End, set up dams, clear country and develop it. I would be keen to ask Senator Wong this: how do you look at foreign investment in farms? Is it about clearing country? You are not allowed to clear country in New South Wales because in 1996 we had a bloke called Kimberley Maxwell Yeadon, a minister in the New South Wales parliament, who brought in SEPP 46 and then the Native Vegetation Conservation Act. Who worked for him in those days? It was Senator Wong, of course. So her history goes back with what she thinks of Australian farmers, especially in New South Wales: 'We'll curtail you from investing and growing your production, and, if you knock a tree down in the wrong spot, we'll fine you.' Thank goodness those changes are soon to be completed by the coalition government in New South Wales.

If you are talking investment, often it is about clearing country and putting it into pasture, just like the Americans did: as Senator Back told me the other day, the Americans cleared and established the whole Esperance area. Sadly there have been some terrible fires there recently and four lives were lost. But the Americans took scrub country and converted it to good wheat and mixed farming country—sheep and cattle country as well, and very productive. That is investment. We want all this investment. Then they will tell you that you are not allowed to touch the land. You might breach some environmental plan. It is quite ironic, isn't it, Chair? That is my input. I support investment where it grows jobs, grows exports, grows production, grows income and grows tax take in Canberra. When you simply sell a fully established farm at peak production that has been looked after by generations of farmers, in most cases, who know the land better than anyone—when you sell off that land and the profits are taken out of your country, how is that good for your local community? I fail to see that.