Move to record foreign-owned farms

The sale of Cubbie Station to foreign interests proved controversial.
The sale of Cubbie Station to foreign interests proved controversial.

A REGISTER of foreign-owned farms in Australia will be established, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard telling farmers it would provide ''a more comprehensive picture'' of the scope of foreign-owned farms than now available.

With the emotive issue of foreign-owned farms and agribusinesses causing considerable anxiety in country areas, Ms Gillard announced the new register during a speech in Canberra at the national congress of the National Farmers' Federation.

Ms Gillard said the government understood ''the need for more information'' on foreign ownership levels, to help ''foster an informed public debate'' on the topic.

''Foreign investment is not a new thing. It has helped build Australian agriculture over the last 200 years and it is important for the future as we seek to boost food production and food security,'' she said.

''Foreign direct investment in agriculture, forestry and fishing accounts for just 0.1 per cent of total foreign investment. And 89 per cent of our agricultural land is entirely Australian owned, with a further 6 per cent majority-owned by Australians, roughly similar levels to what they were 30 years ago,'' she said.

But in her speech Ms Gillard did not release details of how the register would operate, raising questions about whether all foreign-owned farms would be included regardless of their value and whether the list would include agribusinesses that do not own ''agricultural land''.

Ms Gillard said the government would soon release a ''paper'' to commence discussions with the agricultural industry, states and territories ''about the design and content of the register''.

The NFF welcomed the register. ''This is a win for the NFF, for our members and most importantly, for Australian farmers,'' NFF president Jock Laurie said.

''Having a full understanding of foreign investment is crucial to getting the policy decision right. It's essential that we're very clear on the facts of foreign investment, and we will continue to focus our efforts on building transparency,'' he said.

Victorian Farmers Federation president Peter Tuohey also welcomed the register, saying it would ''deliver greater transparency to the debate on foreign ownership''. But he urged the government to go further than the ''agricultural land'' referred to in Ms Gillard's speech. ''Our members want the register to be extended to water assets as well,'' he said.

But Nationals leader Warren Truss described the register as ''half-baked'' and a ''token gesture'' in the absence of other reforms. ''This is Labor's third attempt to catch up on a land register and looks like a desperate bid to be seen to be doing something for the Prime Minister's audience today at the National Farmers' Federation national congress,'' he said.

''A national register of all foreign acquisitions - both land and agribusinesses - needs to be established so Australians have access to accurate information on what land and agribusiness is owned by foreign interests.''

This story Move to record foreign-owned farms first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.