Register of Foreign Ownership of Agricultural Land Amendment (Water) Bill 2016

07 November 2016

 I rise to speak in support of the Register of Foreign Ownership of Agricultural Land Amendment (Water) Bill 2016. I speak in support of this bill even though it is manifestly inadequate. This bill amends the government's Register of Foreign Ownership of Agricultural Land Act 2015, which was also manifestly inadequate. Before the election, Labor proposed a foreign ownership register that would allow every Australian to see who had purchased what agricultural land, when, and for how much. The coalition said that they would match this promise. They did not. As the member for Mallee has just pointed out, transparency creates good policy—indeed it does. Labor's plan would have ensured transparency of foreign ownership of Australian land, and in doing so it would have helped build community confidence in foreign investment in agriculture.

Labor's plan would have created a searchable database in which any Australian who wanted to could have checked who was buying what, when and for how much with the simple click of a mouse. The government's register does not do that. The government register provides only an overview and a data trend about overall levels of foreign ownership. It is clearly not the level of detail that we proposed. It does not provide the important details that Australians want to know—the details that such a register should provide.

The national Agricultural Land Register has been described by my colleague the member for Hunter as the 'Clayton's register': the register you have when you are not having a register. I do, wholeheartedly, agree. Given a primary purpose of the register is about allaying some of the concerns in the community about ownership of agricultural land and, thereby, building public confidence in foreign investment and in agricultural land, it clearly fails. It does the opposite. It is manifestly inadequate.

What does the register tell us? Well, it tells us that 13.6 per cent of our farmland is owned by foreign investors. But even that seems to be untrue. The Sydney Morning Herald today reports that the amount of agricultural land owned by Chinese interests has soared to above three million hectares, more than double the 1.46 million declared by the Australian Taxation Office last month. While some recent significant sales were not done by the cut-off date of 30 June, a compilation of reported land sales, endorsed by agribusiness experts, suggests that even at that date Chinese investors held about two million hectares of land—not the 1.46 million the register says. And it has been broadly criticised by many of these agribusiness experts, who are saying that clearly the numbers coming out of the ATO are just not correct. Surely this calls into question the accuracy of the register as it currently stands?

And it gets worse. The register relies heavily on self-regulation, so the Australian people have to rely on overseas companies to register their interests. And if they do not? They can be slapped with a penalty of—wait for it—$9,000. If they fail to do so, $9,000 is the penalty. I am sure if you were paying $45 million for a property, the threat of a $9,000 penalty is hardly going to make you shake in your boots.

That Sydney Morning Herald story today highlights another shortcoming of this register. It does not tell us what it means by 'farmland'. In this register 'farmland' can be an area that is highly productive and critical to our food security, or 'farmland' can be a dry part in the middle of the country with a few head of cattle running on it. There is no discernment between the two: an acre is an acre, no matter where it is, no matter what it produces. We really need more detail about this, and this register does not give us that detail or allay any fears.

The problem for many people in Australia is not foreign investment, and in particular Chinese investment, which is on the rise. The problem for many people in Australia is they do not have a full understanding, a full visibility, a full transparency of what is going on. That is what causes them to be so fearful and suspicious. They do not know the who, what, when and for how much—something a register of foreign ownership should provide.

We do need foreign investment. No-one is arguing that point. We know that it is incredibly important to us. If we are going to fulfil our aspirations in Australian agriculture to capitalise on the opportunities in Asia, we need foreign investment in agriculture and agribusiness. Foreign investment has many agreed benefits for Australia. It provides additional and important capital for economic growth. It creates employment opportunities for Australians. It improves consumer choice, promotes healthy competition and increases Australia's capacity to compete in global markets. It also increases competitiveness and productivity by introducing new technology. It provides new infrastructure, enabling access to global supply chains and markets. It enhances our skills base, and enables us to sustain higher growth. If we are going to expect the community to support foreign investment in agriculture and land, and in agribusiness, then we need to guarantee that they can have confidence in the system of registration of ownership. We need to provide them with that information and certainty.

The government has hidden behind privacy in this debate. The government has said it cannot release that information based on the privacy and confidentiality of those foreign investors. But at the same time it has said that this information is publicly available by other means, such as through state land titles offices. People could find out this information if they have the time, the wherewithal and the resources to go looking for it and if they know what they are actually looking for and where to look. Surely it is not a privacy argument. Surely the purpose of a register is to collect that information, which is already publicly available, and put it in the one place? Put it in the one register and make it easily accessible for all Australians to have a look if they are interested. But rather than do that, this government fuels community fear of foreign ownership and capitalises on that fear.

The reasons often given for concerns about foreign ownership of agricultural land are food security and national security. The basis for this fear around food security is perfectly reasonable. We live in a big, dry country and farming it can be difficult. We live in a world with an increasing need for protein, and for food in general. I understand that Australians are rightly concerned about food security and food affordability into the future. People want to be certain that we, as a government, are protecting all Australians now and into the future. We need to be able to feed ourselves and we need to be confident that we have this capacity. Currently, we export two-thirds of everything we grow in this country, so we certainly have the capacity to feed ourselves and many more worldwide. But we cannot ignore the genuine fears of Australians that we might lose that capacity and so we must be vigilant and informed about who owns our food-producing land.

The Chinese, the Americans, the English bring money to lift our productivity, to diversify our agricultural interests and bring us ready-made markets in growing countries. And all of that is a good thing for Australia. We have the Foreign Investment Review Board that is tasked with making sure all these investments are in the national interest. Investments are reviewed on a case by case basis, maximising investment flow while protecting Australia's interests and providing assurance to the community.

In my electorate of Paterson, part of the New South Wales Hunter Valley, we have substantial coalmines that sit side by side with our substantial agricultural interests. The foreign investment in those coalmines is 10 times the foreign investment in agriculture in Australia. Those international coal companies have not undermined the sovereignty of our government in any way; they have not threatened our national interest. What they have done is created lots of jobs and lots of wealth in the Hunter region and beyond. The foreign investment of coalmining has brought employment and wealth we would not have had otherwise. It is important that we have a diversified economy and a diversified agricultural sector, but it is also important we understand the source of that diversity.

There are some things we do know about foreign ownership of agricultural land. We do know that the proportion of overseas ownership is increasing. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the proportion of overseas ownership of agricultural land in 2013 was 12.4 per cent. This register reports it as 13.6 per cent, and today the story from The Sydney Morning Herald suggests it is even higher. It is clearly a movable feast. We know that the biggest investors are the United Kingdom, the United States and the Netherlands, as well as China. But it is still the case that we do not know the detail about who these investors are, what land they own, when they bought the land and how much they paid for it. And it seems the government would repeat that failing with the proposed water register.

This bill amends the Register of Foreign Ownership of Agricultural Land to establish a Register of Foreign Ownership of Water Entitlements. It provides for the collection of information, and publication of statistics, about foreign holdings of registrable water entitlements and long-term contractual water rights. It provides for increased transparency on the levels of foreign ownership of water entitlements across Australia. But it fails to guarantee increased transparency over the detail of who owns what in terms of water entitlements and how much they paid for it. That is the critical detail that Australians really need and want to know.

Our agricultural land and our water resources are arguably our nation's most valuable natural assets. It is vital we have a good understanding of foreign investment levels in land and water, and it is vital that those investments are subject to appropriate consideration and scrutiny. This register must be clear about the extent and value of foreign investment in water access entitlements and trends in foreign investment in water access entitlements, but it also must deliver on the detail. If the water register, as an extension of the land register, does not include sufficient detail about who owns what and how much they paid, then it will be nothing but a Clayton's register, like the agricultural land register. Water resources are a necessary input for most sectors of the economy. Agriculture consumes the greatest proportion of water resources and is expected to account for the highest proportion of water access entitlements on the register. There is also significant water use by the mining, manufacturing and energy sectors and of course households.

The nature of water rights is complex, as the member for Mallee pointed out, and it differs across Australia. Water rights can have different characteristics and can be tied to land or not. The largest natural water systems in the country are the Murray-Darling Basin, the Great Artesian Basin and the Lake Eyre Basin. The Murray-Darling Basin is home to more than two million people and includes 53,000 farm businesses. It is vital we have an understanding of who has rights to our most valuable water sources. It is proposed that the water register captures: details of the foreign investor; whether the foreign investor is a government; the nationality of the investor; the type and level of foreign investment and interest; the official water access entitlement number; the type of water covered by the entitlement; and the volume of the entitlement. Unlike the agricultural land register, the water register will capture all industry sectors, not just agricultural uses. This is also important.

I mentioned previously that the Hunter Valley has the coexistence of agriculture and coalmines, and so the allocation of water resources becomes particularly important. Coalminers in the Hunter Valley and elsewhere throughout the state of New South Wales are facing stricter limits on their groundwater extractions, under new rules imposed by the New South Wales government. These rules are recognition of the value of water to industry but, importantly, a recognition of the concern the community has over how competing interests are reconciled in relation to water. It is a most precious resource.

It is important that Australians have an understanding of who owns, or has access to, our water resources. Given the legitimate concern over foreign ownership of land and, by necessity, water, the government must ensure its water register is more transparent than its land register. The Clayton's land register has not given confidence to the Australian people about foreign ownership of agricultural land, and a Clayton's water register will not give confidence to the Australian people about foreign ownership of our other vitally important natural resource, our water. I implore this government to do a better job with the water resources register than it has done with the land register.