by Brad Thompson
A company financed by the Qatar Government with major investments in WA farms has defended its record of returning value to the local economy.
Hassad Australia chief executive Tom McKeon said the company employed people from local communities, supported local businesses and paid tax. The company owns 11 farms over 250,000ha in Australia, including three in WA.
Mr McKeon said Hassad had increased its footprint in the sheep and grain industries by 80,000ha in the past 18 months and boosted its holdings in WA by 30,000ha. It expected to complete its farm spending spree in the next 12-18 months.
Mr McKeon, who was giving evidence via teleconference to a Senate committee hearing in Perth yesterday, came under intense questioning from committee chairman Bill Heffernan about the company's finance and business model.
Mr McKeon took on notice questions about the rate of return Qatar required on its investments.
He rejected claims that Hassad paid up to 40 per cent above the market rate for land in Victoria but confirmed Hassad required farmers to sign confidentiality agreements as part of sale negotiations.
Senator Heffernan said the committee, which is investigating foreign investment in agriculture, had evidence a person using a false name received Foreign Investment Review Board approval to buy land within 24 hours. Mr McKeon said that on average it took about 55 days for the FIRB to approve Hassad farm purchases.
There was no suggestion the person was connected with Hassad.
WAFarmers president Dale Park and Pastoralists and Graziers Association vice-president Tony Seabrook told the hearing that a register of foreign ownership would help to ease concerns about the issue.
Senator Heffernan held a private meeting with Regional Development Minister Brendon Grylls yesterday to discuss Chinese company Shanghai Zhongfu's investment in a sugar industry on prime land on the Ord River irrigation scheme.
The Senate committee will be in the Kimberley today to assess agricultural opportunities near Fitzroy Crossing.