THE Senate Rural and Regional Committee has expressed continued frustration at the ambiguity and inaccuracy of statistical information detailing the level of foreign ownership in Australian agriculture.
The ABS conducted a survey last year investigating the level of foreign ownership of Australian farm land and agribusinesses, to fill a long-standing void.
The Agricultural Land and Water Ownership Survey (ALWOS) returned strong findings which backed the government’s view that virtually no issue existed, with our agricultural industry being mostly Australian-owned.
The survey said as of December 31 2010, 99 per cent of agricultural businesses in Australia were entirely Australian-owned, as was 89pc of agricultural land and 91pc of water entitlements for agricultural purposes.
The ALWOS report covered a sample of 11,000 agricultural businesses representing the Australian farming industry.
But the results have been widely criticised for inaccurately portraying the true level of foreign ownership, with some clearly foreign-owned farmland and agribusinesses not covered in the figures.
The survey’s figures were further discredited and questioned during a hearing of the Senate Committee in Canberra last Friday.
The inquiry is looking into the Foreign Investment Review Board’s (FIRB) national interest test and its application to agricultural assets, in particular for state-owned foreign entities.
WA Liberal Senator Chris Back expressed frustration that the ABS survey results were being preached as gospel, despite coming through flawed methodology.
That view was strongly backed by other participating Senators, including the committee chair NSW Senator Bill Heffernan and NSW Nationals Senator Fiona Nash.
Senator Back said the Australian community was seeking to understand the proportion of foreign investment in agricultural businesses and agricultural land - but clarity was being thwarted by constraints in the ABS’ work.
“Until we come to that understanding, I think we are going to continue to have ill directed and ill informed debate on this particular question,” he said.
Addressing senior ABS representatives, Senator Back urged the removal of any constrictions attached to gathering accurate and transparent information, to help understand the essence of the question, about the proportion of foreign ownership in Australian farming.
“My appeal to you is to use your expertise and your resources without the limits that have been put on you and go away and come back and give us that guidance,” he said.
“If you cannot tell us what is the proportion owned in a trust structure or a partnership or whatever, then tell us that.
“If the topic is too enormous then please come back and tell us - because I do not think it helps anybody to see a figure of 99pc in agricultural businesses or 89pc in agricultural land and then just have it shot down.
“It does not help you. It makes you look like fools and you are not fools.
“My plea to you is to have the shackles removed and use the knowledge you have.”
Senator Back said the entire foreign ownership debate would not progress until greater statistical rigour and transparency was achieved.
In response, ABS statistician Bruce Hockman said he understood the Senator’s comments about an unrestrained inquiry, but said available resources were always a constraint.
Earlier in the proceedings, Senator Heffernan gained an admission that the 42 farms bought around the Shenhua coal mine - on prime agricultural land near Gunnedah in NSW - were not included in the survey’s register of foreign-owned farmland.
He said if the Chinese state-owned businesses had an ABN linked to mining, the purchases weren’t included in the ABS figures.
Senator Heffernan also raised questions about the survey’s treatment of Cargill, a wholly foreign-owned family company, and its investments in Australian agricultural land.
He also questioned why BFB Brabham, an agricultural company located at Temora in NSW, was not considered a foreign purchase, even though he believed it was.
“How do we get around that?” he said.
“This is all cuckoo stuff. If you want buy a bit of country out in the Tanami Desert, because it is not agricultural land you actually have to apply to the Foreign Investment Review Board.
“But if you want to buy 200,000 acres in the Riverina, you do not.
“That is just some of the nonsense we have to deal with and as I said to the committee, we are not interested in the politics of this; we are only interested in getting down to the bloody facts - pardon my language.”
Senator Nash said the Committee wanted more detail as it was “becoming very clear that the principles and what this survey is based on are not necessarily giving us the clear the picture that we need in taking everything into account”.
“I am sure I can speak for all of us on this committee that we are anything but xenophobic and doing nothing more than trying to find some very clear answers to what is a very complex situation,” she said.
Senator Heffernan said for the ABS survey to say that nothing had changed between two surveys almost 30 years apart was untrue, and the committee considered that to be ridiculous.
“The landscape is altering,” he said.
He said the new challenge in considering foreign investment was about understanding how to deal with sovereign investors, to ensure they don’t distort the capital market, if they are not looking for a return on their money, and ensure they don’t distort the local commodity market.
He said the Australian Tax Office also had serious implications to consider, regarding foreign owned businesses producing food locally on humanitarian grounds and then exporting that produce direct to their home-lands.
“So if you have got a starving population, for example, you can send as much tucker from here home and not pay any tax on it,” he said.
“How do we protect our revenue base? These are the real questions we want to get to.
“In fairness to the ABS, given the resources you have, you are totally excused.
“I do not want to get anyone into trouble - but I have never seen such political claptrap come out of the survey when in fact the real answer is that we do not know what is going on.”