Chinese ownership of Aussie farmland up

Although many oppose foreigners snapping up land, govt says jobs and industries benefit

Facing pressure over claims that Australia was selling its farmland to foreigners - especially those from China - the federal government last year introduced an annual register to reveal the amount of land owned by foreign investors.

When the first register was released in September last year, the government said less than 3 per cent of foreign-owned farmland was held by Chinese interests. Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Steven Ciobo said: "China is just not at the level people think it is."

But the Register of Foreign Ownership of Agricultural Land this year tells a different story.

The register, prepared by the Australian Taxation Office and released on Sept 29, showed that Chinese ownership has increased nearly tenfold - from 1.46 million ha last year to 14.42 million ha - or 2.5 per cent of the country's total farmland.

Chinese investors now own 25 per cent of foreign-owned land, just behind those from Britain, at 27 per cent. The next biggest group of foreign owners came from the Netherlands, the United States, Switzerland, Canada, Singapore and the Philippines.

Singaporean ownership fell slightly last year - from 1.9 million ha to 1.8 million ha. It also slipped from the fourth-largest to seventh-largest source of foreign investment.

An opinion survey by the Lowy Institute last year found that 87 per cent of Australians opposed allowing foreign companies to buy Australian farmland.

Releasing the register last week, Treasurer Scott Morrison highlighted an overall decrease in foreign ownership of Australian farmland in the past year, from 14.1 per cent of total land to 13.6 per cent.

"Trade and foreign investment create jobs for Australians," he said in a statement.

"At the same time, the Turnbull government has taken consistent and determined action when it comes to ensuring foreign investment is not contrary to the national interest," he added.

Foreign investors in Australian farmland are required to register their interests within 30 days of buying or leasing a property.

For most foreign investment in farmland worth more than A$15 million (S$16 million), government approval must be sought, including for changes in the land's use.

The government has the power to block investments it deems contrary to the public interest. This included blocking the sale of the S. Kidman & Co cattle empire - Australia's largest private agricultural holding - to Chinese bidders.

Approval was later given for a sale to a joint venture led by Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart's Hancock Prospecting, with a minority Chinese partner, Shanghai CRED.

Attitudes may be changing, however. The head of the National Farmers' Federation, Ms Fiona Simson, said foreign funds were helping to build the country's farming sector, and the register helped to promote public confidence in investment.

Ms Simson told The Straits Times: "We are very comfortable with the levels of foreign investment - they are not skyrocketing... Chinese investment is a relatively new thing for Australia. It may take a while for people to feel comfortable about it."

She added that some areas that had seen large influxes of Chinese investment in farmland and agricultural corporations in recent years - such as a Shandong RuYi investment around the Cubbie Station cotton farm - resulted in a boost for jobs and local industries.

"Around Cubbie, there was outspoken criticism - now there is support," Ms Simson said.

"People are seeing the investment occurring and communities being brought to life again… I think attitudes are changing."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2017, with the headline 'Chinese ownership of Aussie farmland up'. Print Edition | Subscribe