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Govt’s foreign ownership register for agricultural land on track

Jon Condon, June 23, 2014

The Federal Government says it is progressing the development of an ‘accurate and effective’ Foreign Ownership Register for Agricultural Land, as promised in the coalition’s 2013 election campaign.

Agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce said both domestic and foreign investment were vital to the continuing growth of Australian agriculture, being essential for enabling Australia’s agricultural and food industries to better capture the opportunities from the growth in global demand for food and fibre.

At the same time, he said the government was responding to community concerns arising from the incomplete picture, and an apparent recent marked increase, in foreign investment in Australian agricultural land.

In a statement issued this morning, Mr Joyce said he understood that many people were concerned about the lack of reliable data to give people a clear overview of who owns what around the country.

The latest Agricultural Land and Water Ownership Survey (ALWOS) released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (see Friday’s separate report, click here) found an increase of 4.7 million hectares of agricultural land with some level of foreign ownership, now totalling 49.6 million hectares across Australia.

Mr Joyce said Australians would not be surprised by this increase, but would prefer to have more regular monitoring of the advances in foreign ownership of agricultural land than periodic surveys, with the next one not likely to report until 2017.

“The purpose of the Foreign Ownership Register for Agricultural Land is to increase transparency and provide accurate information to the community and policy makers,” he said.

Mr Joyce said the government was developing the detailed planning for the Register. The Department of Agriculture was working on the information technology and reporting framework that could underpin the register.

“The government is doing this properly. The initial work has focused on exploring the possible systems for collecting information from foreign owners and their agents to create a comprehensive record of investment,” he said.

“This will allow the government to provide more reliable reporting on the level of, and trends in, foreign investment in Australian agriculture. Australia has a pretty good system of checks and balances in our foreign investment screening regime to help ensure the investments that go ahead are the right investments for Australia,” Minister Joyce said.

Qld had its own state-based register

Queensland developed its own state-based register of foreign ownership of agricultural land in the early 1990s. Despite warnings of considerable financial penalties for non-compliance, major flaws were exposed in the State’s report when it was released.

In one example exposed by this writer, Shipfield Pastoral Co, then one of the state’s largest cattle operators owned by George Ishiyama, a US businessman of Japanese decent, was absent from the list. It turned out that Shipfield had instructed its Australian legal representatives to fulfil its reporting responsibilities, but the solicitors had failed to execute.

There were dozens of other smaller irregularities evident in the Queensland report, when it was released. Many related to smaller parcels of agricultural land held by Japanese offshore owners, who were using the Queensland land purchases to moderate Japanese death duties at the time.

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