Australia: Increased farm buyer scrutiny likely
The Land | 22 October 2013
Increased farm buyer scrutiny likely
THE Abbott government's plan to increase scrutiny of foreign farm purchases looks set to pass the Senate despite a simmering internal Coalition row over Chinese investment.
The Greens and Democratic Labour Party senator John Madigan have backed the Coalition's plan to lower the threshold which triggers scrutiny of foreign farmland purchases by the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB).
This gives the Coalition the numbers it needs to pass the legislation through the Senate.
The Greens and Senator Madigan both want a lower threshold than the $15 million outlined by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in his pre-election foreign investment policy. Labor has so far indicated it does not support lowering the threshold.
Liberals and Nationals are divided over increasing the threshold to $1 billion for China in an effort to clinch a free trade agreement.
Mr Abbott says he wants to sign a free-trade deal with all three North Asian powers, China, Japan and South Korea, within 12 months.
Government sources suggest the government would be better off passing the legislation before a new Senate, where views on foreign investment are much more uncertain, is sworn in on July 1 next year.
Mr Abbott released a foreign investment policy ahead of the election which said the threshold of $248 million which triggers a review by the Foreign Investment Review Board would be reduced to $15 million.
The policy included plans to establish a national register to keep track of foreign-owned land holdings.
The policy was reaffirmed by Mr Abbott and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce during the election campaign.
The policy has largely been driven as part of a response to growing community anxiety over perceived high levels of foreign land ownership in Australia.
Treasurer Joe Hockey indicated the Abbott government could increase the investment threshold to $1 billion if China was prepared to enter in to a free-trade deal with Australia.
Key Nationals, including Mr Joyce, and New South Wales Senator John Williams, are staunchly opposed to doing a special deal for China.
They argue profits will be lost to Beijing, rather than supporting local Australian communities.
Senator Madigan said on Monday that "any investment in Australian farmland should be vetted''.
"You can buy a pretty big plot of highly productive rich arable land in parts of Australia for $15 million,'' he said.Alarm bells
He said given at least 11.3 per cent of farmland was foreign-owned, "it should be ringing alarm bells for those in government and in opposition''.
"We should not be selling out the farm to suit vested interests,'' he said.
Greens Leader Christine Milne said her party favoured lowering the FIRB trigger to $5 million and a tough national interest test.
"We shouldn't sell any land and water to a wholly owned government subsidiary at all and in relation to corporate purchases there should be a threshold of no more than $5 million,'' she said.
Senator Milne said countries were buying up productive land around the world to ensure they had a source of food when climate change-induced food shortages inevitably occurred.
"It is no longer about trade, but survival,'' she said.
Senator Milne said the Greens would propose their own foreign investment bill when parliament resumed in November.
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