Government to set up foreign land register for agricultural land and Independent senator Nick Xenophon dismissed the plan as “window dressing”

Prime Minister Julia Gillard

The government will introduce a foreign ownership register for agricultural land, the PM says. Source: AAP

THE federal government will introduce a foreign ownership register for agricultural land, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has told farmers.

The register will provide a more comprehensive picture of the specific size and locations of foreign agricultural landholdings.

The prime minister’s announcement at the National Farmers Federation national congress in Canberra on Tuesday was applauded by delegates.

The government shortly will release a paper to begin discussions with stakeholders including farmers, the states and territories about the design and content of the register.

Ms Gillard said she wanted to take the politics out of foreign ownership.

“Foreign investment is not a new thing,” she said.

Just 0.1 per cent of total direct foreign investment is in agriculture, forestry and fishing, while 89 per cent of agricultural land is entirely Australian-owned.

A further six per cent is majority Australian-owned.

That proportion was roughly similar to levels 30 years ago, Ms Gillard said.

A working group that includes Treasury and other government agencies will release a consultation paper soon.

The final design of the register will take into account the need to improve transparency of foreign ownership in agriculture without imposing unnecessary burdens on investors or duplicating work already undertaken by state and territory governments.

Federation president Jock Laurie described the announcement as “fantastic”.

“We have been calling that for a while,” he told reporters, adding there was nothing better than a truly informed debate.

“I think a register will give the community that information.”

Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey welcomed the register, adding it was an idea the coalition had been pushing for months.

“Whether it’s their policy or our policy, I think great transparency in relation to foreign investment in agricultural interests will alleviate a lot of the concerns,” he told reporters in Melbourne.

Mr Hockey urged the government to go further by referring any agricultural land sale valued at more than $15 million to the Foreign Investment Review Board for consideration.

Independent senator Nick Xenophon dismissed the plan as “window dressing”, saying it would not address community concerns about the foreign takeover of Cubbie Station in Queensland.

The controversial sale of Australia’s largest cotton farm to a Chinese-led consortium was finalised after being given the green light by the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB).

Senator Xenophon said he was still concerned by claims made in a Senate estimates hearing last week that an Australian bidder may have been ignored.

“The register will do nothing to answer the questions raised by Australian-owned companies bidding for Cubbie Station who say they haven’t had a fair go in the process,” he said in a statement.

Trade Minister Craig Emerson warned farmers at the National Farmers Federation (NFF) congress on Monday against supporting such action, claiming it would be to their disadvantage.

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