“If you ask the question of who owns Australia, I would say that First Nations people own this country,” Smith says. “Even though there’s limited application of native title over the four corners of this nation, cultural heritage is tenure-blind.”
Dr Laurence Troy, of the University of Sydney, was one of three researchers who worked on a 2012 report for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, which developed a framework for analysing national patterns of ownership change, aggregation and fragmentation of agricultural land.
“I see [ownership] as a central question in how our society operates,” Troy says. “There is a lot of wealth and power tied up in property … it is important for a whole load of transparency around the structure of property and who owns property.”
The report began as an attempt to track the fragmentation of rural land through housing developments and subdivisions into lifestyle blocks. It found that, as farmland near cities was being broken up, agricultural land in more remote areas was being consolidated into large holdings by big corporate players.
Both forces for change in rural Australia – consolidation and fragmentation – are driving up property prices.
According to the 2021 Australian Farmland Values report by Rural Bank, the median price per hectare for agricultural land in Australia increased by 12.9% in 2020 to $5,907 a hectare, the seventh consecutive year of positive growth.
The consolidation of agricultural land is not inherently bad, says a report co-author, Dr Melissa Neave. There is no guarantee that a small family-run enterprise will engage in better land management practices than a large corporation. But, she says, the separation of land ownership from land management seen by some corporate players can be “problematic”.
“The reality is that the bigger companies have started to consolidate our resources within Australia – so the issue is one of to what extent do we control, does the government control, the resources within the land itself,” she says. “Even though a company owns the land, the natural resources are generally owned by state governments. To what extent can [the state] actually ensure the health and wellbeing of that long-term management of those natural resources?”
Identifying landowners allows for better management of those natural resources, like soil and water, Neave says, and provides a basis on which to measure the impact of land management on agricultural productivity.
It could also potentially allow for landscape-wide planning, rather than viewing every property as a private fiefdom.
“Colonial ideas around what land means and what property is were really tied up with the notion of improvement, meaning that you needed to actively use the land, to improve it,” she says. “And if you weren’t seen to be improving the land – meaning fencing, clearing – you could lose it … but that means there can be a disconnect between the agenda of landowners versus the agenda of the community or of environmental values.”
A national register of land use, or at least nationally consistent data standards, would help encourage big agricultural investors, according to the National Farmers’ Federation. The NFF wants to grow farmgate output to $100bn by 2030 but reaching that target will reportedly require $8.7bn a year in capital investment.
“To do those kinds of things, you need ready access to data,” says Ash Salardini, the NFF’s general manager of trade and economics.
At the smaller end of town, where farms are still run by family units, the perceived privacy risks of such a register outweigh the potential benefits. Privacy concerns have grown after a number of high-profile trespasses on meat production businesses by animal rights activists in 2019, linked back to an unofficial register of farm ownership.
“It’s a family farm environment as well, it’s not just a business,” Salardini says. “So some of those privacy concerns need to be addressed.”
Difficulty of obtaining data
The federal government received recommendations to introduce nationally consistent land use data in 2012, 2015 and again in 2018, after a parliamentary inquiry. A national roadmap to consolidate and coordinate databases, developed in 2017, remains in the pilot stages.
Theoretically, all of this data is available on request. But there is a stark difference between making an inquiry about a specific parcel of land and attempting a broader mapping of land use.
“The information is there,” Troy says. “It’s not like they don’t know what the current legal status of the land is and who owns what … it’s all there and you can find out as a citizen. It’s just probably going to cost you money.”
Accessing data to form a picture of land use is difficult. “Every state has its own record keeping system,” Troy says. “Just understanding the structure across the various jurisdictions is a task in itself.
“I remember in New South Wales we encountered a lot of issues about data accuracy … because it hadn’t been recorded properly, there was no record in that column or because it hadn’t changed ownership in 40 years so they hadn’t updated it. A lot of that stuff actually makes it really problematic.”
NSW has since improved its database to include search tools, he says.
Access to an amalgam of the state tenure datasets created by the government-owned entity PSMA Australia costs more than $7,500 a year.
Even obtaining the public data directly from governments can be costly. The Northern Territory and South Australian governments charge hundreds to thousands of dollars for each dataset. Some of the data is incomplete, including omitting some of the largest pastoral parcels in Australia. In both WA and NSW, the data is maintained by private entities.
The data is also sometimes released in proprietary formats, requiring software subscriptions that can also be extremely expensive.
Even when all data is available, not all questions about land ownership can be answered. Neave says identifying land consolidation is “really tricky” in a dataset that may use multiple names to identify the same landholder.
“One year you would have H. Smith and then the next time around, it’d be Mrs. H. Smith and then it’d be Mr and Mrs. H Smith,” she says. “And because those names come up differently, when you’re running an algorithm to source whether there’s been a change [in tenure], those register as different names but it’s arguable whether or not the land has changed hands. So there’s actually quite a complicated space.”