SUBJECT/S: Foreign Investment

SUBJECT/S: Foreign Investment

HOST: Joel Fitzgibbon is opposition spokesperson for Agriculture. Joel Fitzgibbon, good afternoon.

FITZGIBBON: Good to be with you Nicole.

HOST: What is your take on the National Agricultural Land Register? The coalition said they would provide us with these details before the election and they are true to their word.

FITZGIBBON: I have described it as a Clayton’s Register, a register you have when you’re not having a register. Labor when it was last in government promised to produce a register and our objective was to ensure every Australian, with the click of a mouse, could see who was buying what, where and for how much. Now the current government came to match that promise in the lead up to the last election they said they would do the same or similar, I won’t put words into their mouth, but surprise, surprise this is not what we were expecting. Some months ago they declared the information inherently in the register is a secret which was a warning of things to come. Now we’ve seen this report today and it doesn’t really give us any sufficient guide to what is happening in Australia and it is really hopeless. Given this project is about allaying some of the concerns in the community and building public confidence in foreign investment regime. This is very, very disappointing and seems to do the opposite.

HOST: Well it tells us 13.6 of our farmland is owned by foreign investors. That’s more than we knew when Labor was in office.

FITZGIBBON: What is the definition of farmland Nicole? That’s what of the big missing pieces in this jigsaw puzzle. You know farm land can be an area highly productive and critical to our food security and needs and it can be a quite dry part of our continent that someone is running a few head of cattle on. We really need to know more detail. The thing is how much land falls into their own definition, whatever that might have been. It doesn’t tell us much at all.

HOST: At least it’s a start though Joel Fitzgibbon because we knew far less when Labor was in office.

FITZGIBBON: Well we identified the problem and the problem Nicole as you pointed out in your summary of the country investing in Australia, the problem is not that the Chinese investment is on the rise, the problem is people don’t have full visibility of what it going on. So Labor’s promise is to put in place a register so people could have a better understanding and therefore build public confidence. There is one thing the major parties completely agree on is, that if we are going to fulfil all our aspirations in Australian agriculture to capitalise on those opportunities in Asia, we will need bucket loads of investment in agriculture and agribusiness. For a country with a small population that are living with a limited savings pool, by definition we will need a lot of foreign investment as we always have, so if we are going to expect the community to support the idea of foreign investment in agriculture and land and indeed agribusiness, we need them to have confidence in that system and on that basis we need to provide them with information. The register announced today does none of that.

HOST: So what extra information do you want included?

FITZGIBBON: Well I do believe if it is possible to introduce definitions on what is objectively defined as agricultural land and we can put that in the classifications. You could come up with a big number describing all of central Australia as a land mass, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of that land. So we will have some classifications. I think people are entitled to know who these people are, where they are buying, what type of land it is, what they paid etcetera. The government tried to evoke privacy concerns here but counterintuitively one of them said today, ‘well all this information is publicly available by other means’.  In other words State Land Titles office etcetera, but people don’t have the time or the resources to deal with those issues themselves. The government should be delivering this information for people who might have concerns.

HOST: Would a Labor government allow more or less foreign investment in agricultural farmland in Australia.

FITZGIBBON: I think you’d get the same answer from both of the major political parties on that question and that is we will allow as much investment as is necessary.

HOST: Well how much is that?

FITZGIBBON: That’s not a question capable of being answered.

HOST: Well you want the other side to answer questions so you surely need to answer these questions yourselves. I mean you can’t be critical of the other side for not providing a definition of what farmland is and then not be unable to answer how much foreign investment you will allow in this country is.

FITZGIBBON: I don’t think either side or any political party or candidate or member or senator in this country should be putting a limit on it. I don’t believe Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison or anyone in particular Barnaby Joyce are interested in building public confidence in foreign investment and I think today’s report shows that. They are increasingly working with the Joh Bjelke-Petersen style of government. They grow and fuel community fear and capitalise on that fear. Barnaby Joyce was out there doing that again today and you just played a piece of him doing so. Then of course they protect local, well connected investors from price competition at the expense of farmers who want to sell their land. Remember if the Chinese are bidding up land or the Americans are bidding up land, the beneficiaries are the farmers trying to sell their land. Kidman is the perfect example where they stood to do very well out of the land sale most of which by the way is lease hold, long term lease. Now that model, the Bjelke-Petersen style model this government continues to pursue even if it isn’t in the interest of our farmers, and is not in the national interest.

HOST: Surely we can have some better understanding of how much agricultural land Labor considers acceptable to sell to foreign interests because this is a burning issue in regional Australia and we spoke earlier to Wade Northhausen from the Goulbourn West Victoria Farmers Federation and he described foreign ownership of our agricultural land like this.

NORTHHAUSEN: Speaking from the perspective of the president of the West Goulburn VFF branch here, now foreign ownership is a disaster. We certainly don’t need to have our country being owned by a myriad of foreigners. We need to keep it in our own hands for our own use.

HOST: Joel Fitzgibbon? 

FITZGIBBON: Let me make two points Nicole and I will answer your questions. It’s pretty hard to know how much the appropriate level of foreign investment if we don’t know how much they know and that is partially the point on the foreign investment register and the register they delivered today.

HOST: We know that they own 13.6 per cent.

FITZGIBBON: Of what? What sort of land, what productivity of the land etcetera. The National Farmers Federation has of course criticise today too. But on the second point, we export two third of everything we grow in this country, all the food we grow. We have anything but a food security issue and we will never do. It’s funny, it’s counterintuitive how people like Barnaby Joyce hail these free trade agreements because it allows us to export more to say Asian nations but when foreign investors come here with ready-made markets because of connections back in their home country, we seem to be concerned and express resistance to that. Now that is just counterintuitive. The Chinese, the Americans nor the Poms can dig up the land and take it with them, they bring money to lift our productivity, diversify our agricultural interests and they bring ready-made markets in growing countries and that’s a good thing for Australia.

HOST: Isn’t the reality though if you lose your economic sovereignty, you also lose your national sovereignty. If you sell out your agricultural land to foreign interests they are the ones who are making decisions about the direction of your economy ultimately because they own all your natural resources and at some point you’ve got to start making decisions which are in their interests not in your interests.

FITZGIBBON: Two points, we do have a Foreign Investment Review Board, which is tasked with making sure all these investments are in the national interest. Second point, I represent a large slice of the Hunter Valley in NSW. We have lots and lots of coal mines in addition to agricultural interests. The foreign investment in those coal mines is 10 times the foreign investment in agriculture in Australia and they are all owned by foreign countries, the BHPs of the world and Glencores of the world and they haven’t undermined the sovereignty of our government in any way but what they have done is create lots of jobs and wealth in my region.

HOST: So you’re a big supporter of coal mines owned by foreigners in the Hunter Valley?

FITZGIBBON: I’m a big supporter of a diverse economy and in my own region coal mining has brought employment and wealth we could not have dreamed of without that investment and that wealth and that’s a good thing but I’m a believer of a diversified economy and I’m a believer of a diversified agriculture sector. Our agriculture sector has to be focused on premium product to which we get a premier return on that product which comes from the use of our limited natural resources. We have to shift away from a commodity market where we are continually price takers and shift our interests to value add.

HOST: You’re with Tony Abbott are you? You think that coal is good for humanity?

FITZGIBBON: Now Nicole, coal has been good for humanity and has fuelled the industrial revolution. There is no doubt about that and Australia is better for the investment in coal and the extraction of coal.

HOST: So if you become Agricultural Minister after the next election you will be flying the flag for the coal industry?

FITZGIBBON: Of course I will fly the flag for the coal industry but not at the expense of our sustainable industries and in particular agriculture.

HOST: Graham wants to ask you a question Shadow Minister, Graham is in Mildura. Graham, good afternoon.

GRAHAM: Good afternoon Joel, good afternoon Nicole.

FITZGIBBON: G’day Graham.

GRAHAM: Joel what we are not seeing with this is what the answer the ordinary Australian wants to know and there is only 40 per cent of agricultural land in Australia, the rest is desert. You know that as well as I do. Now you can’t compare your coal miners with your agriculture because once you get their coal out they are gone and they don’t want the land and we get the land back and agricultural land is gone forever so let’s get out of that little debate there.

FITZGIBBON: Now sorry Graham, no sorry. The Americans, the Chinese, the English can’t take the land with them. They can’t take it with them mate, it is still Australian land.

GRAHAM: Joel, you have had pretty good go. For the average Australian I just want an answer. For the average Australian, I’m not having a go at you because I respect all side of politics. I’m not…

HOST: If you could just provide us with a question.

GRAHAM: I just want to know Joel, 14 per cent of Australian Agricultural land, how much land has foreign interests have in Australia. I cannot go to China with a million dollars and buy land in China I can’t even get a house block in China, I’m not allowed to. Now we just want a fair go. Fair trading that’s what it’s all about. I think we all say fair trading; we’re not getting fair trading because we can’t go to China with a million dollars and even buy a house block.

FITZGIBBON: Well, I have talked to some of the big beef exporters in this country and they do have real estate and facilities in overseas markets including in China bit it is no doubt harder but it’s not a key question for Australia’s interest whether we can or we can’t invest more in foreign nations. What really fuels our national interest is the extent to which we can overcome our challenges and create and accept as much investment as we need to capitalise on those opportunities and that’s the real question here.

HOST: Joel Fitzgibbon great to talk to you, thank you for your time.

FITZGIBBON: That’s a great pleasure.

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