Register to track foreign companies buying Australian farmland to be delayed

ABC | 12 December 2014

Register to track foreign companies buying Australian farmland to be delayed

By National Rural Reporter Lucy Barbour

The Federal Government's plan to have a register of foreign-owned farmland by Christmas has been delayed.

The perception foreigners were buying up great swathes of Australian farmland got such traction ahead of the 2013 election campaign, the Coalition promised to set up a national register to detail which foreign companies owned what.

In October, Trade Minister Andrew Robb said the Government intended to have the register in place by Christmas.

But the ABC can reveal the process could still take months.

The Nationals, and some regional Liberals, claim that without the register, Australia's food security and sovereignty could be jeopardised.

The ABC understands Cabinet this week sent Treasury's latest submission on the register back to the department to be refined.

Register would allay fears about foreign raiders

Labor's agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said the register was about ensuring public confidence and being able to access information.

"Treasury is typically economically quite dry and I suspect there were some in the Cabinet who weren't convinced that [Federal Treasurer] Joe Hockey's submission fully complied with the pre-election commitment made prior to the election," he said.

"Well the register really only has one role and that is in ensuring public confidence by allowing people to, with the click of a mouse, find out who's investing, where they are investing and in what quantities they are investing.

"I think when people can see that many of the public concerns will be allayed, and people will have more confidence in the system and a very great need for foreign investment in this country."

All three major parties support the idea of a register.

National Farmers' Federation chief executive Simon Talbot said he hoped it would not end up becoming a broken election commitment.

"This is far too important for the Australian economy and Australian farmers to break the promise," he said.

"We have three very simple mantras: Tell us who you are, we don't want to see creep, we don't want to see aggregation and we don't want to see closed systems outside the Australian economy."

Mr Talbot said he wanted more open communication from Mr Hockey.

"Please communicate more widely, please be transparent around timings and please ensure that the intellectual rigour is placed around this process to make sure it's not just a rubber stamp," Mr Talbot said.

States need to get on board to gather information

The Government needs the cooperation of the states, which are responsible for land title, to keep track of purchases and record information.

The ABC understands some states have demanded more money to cover that cost.

A statement from NSW Treasurer Andrew Constance also indicated the register was still months away.

"It is understood that NSW Land and Property Information would be able to ask for citizenship information as part of the title transfer process," the statement said.

"However, further work will need to be done to determine who would verify additional information and if the verification process would place undue cost on each purchaser, especially Australian's being asked to prove they are local buyers.

"No additional resources have been requested from NSW as the proposal is still in its early stages."

Meanwhile, Victoria's newly-elected Labor Government is yet to form its policy on the issue.

Mr Hockey was unavailable for an interview, but a spokeswoman said he wanted a comprehensive foreign ownership register and he would release details in due course.

Some Coalition backbenchers have said the feeling among some Liberals was that the policy was not compatible with the Prime Minister's mantra that Australia is "open for business".

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Source: ABC