HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES HANSARD 16 SEPTEMBER 2015

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (11:19):  You can hear the member for Calare moderating his language. Out there in the electorate, the Minister for Agriculture, the member for Calare and their partners in the Nationals are saying, 'We can't have these Chinese investing in our farmland'—and the dog whistle is alive and well. But, when the member for Calare got to his feet in here, he could not say often enough, in very moderate tones, 'Mr Deputy Speaker, this is not about discouraging investment in our farmland; this is just about making sure people know what is going on.' If only that were true.

We know what this is about. This is about introducing into this country for the first time in our history a discriminatory foreign investment regime. From the day this bill passes the parliament, if you are a citizen of the United States, a citizen of Chile or a citizen of New Zealand and you want to invest in Australian agriculture, you will face a billion-dollar screening threshold. If you are a citizen of just about any other country, in particular of Asia, which is what the agriculture minister has in mind in particular, you will face a screening threshold of just $15 million for farmland and $55 million if you are classified as a stage 1 agribusiness processor or higher.

So let's not have one conversation outside of this place and another conversation inside this place.


Members like the member for Calare need to be consistent and present their case for what it is, and that is a dog whistle to those who have unfounded fears about, first, the level of Asian investment in Australian agriculture and, second, how that might impact on Australian agriculture.

So that is just one thing this bill does. It also makes other changes to the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act 1975, including the introduction of civil penalties and additional and stricter criminal penalties to ensure foreign investors and intermediaries do not profit from breaking the rules. The bill also enables the transfer to the Australian Taxation Office of responsibility for regulating foreign investment in residential real estate, which will further enable stronger enforcement and better compliance with the existing rules. It also enables the lowering of the screening thresholds, as I have suggested.

Surprisingly, I want to go back and concentrate on the agriculture and agribusiness components, but I do want to say that the opposition, while not opposing the measures here, does not accept that the issue of Sydney property prices will be comprehensively addressed by these changes. Peak housing bodies such as the Property Council of Australia have expressed concern that, indeed, the bill may serve to undermine rather than promote housing affordability in our capital cities.

But again I want to return to what, for me, is the most important aspect of the bill, and that is the impact on Australian agriculture. It is well known that if we are to fully capitalise on the so-called dining boom—in other words, if we are to fully take the opportunity provided by global food demand and, in particular, growing demand for high-quality food amongst the growing middle classes of Asia—we will need substantial levels of investment in this country.

Let's just take stock of what is happening in agriculture, because it is a very interesting point. We all talk very optimistically about the future in agriculture, as we should, but it is fair to say that the challenges in agriculture are just as significant as the opportunities. For example, productivity in Australian agriculture has at best plateaued. More likely it is in decline, but at best it has plateaued. Government investment in research and development has shrunk in real terms. The rate of adoption and extension of that innovation is poor. Our share of global market trade is actually in decline, not on the rise. Our workforce is ageing. Our weather patterns are working against us. Our limited natural resources are more likely shrinking than growing. The allocation of those resources is in many cases inefficient. We remain too dependent on commodity markets where we are typically price takers, subject to the vagaries of global markets. And, very importantly, we are underdone in infrastructure terms, both on farm and off farm—off farm in particular, in just about every area: road, rail, ports and, indeed telecommunications.

So one of the key messages for Australian agriculture—or, more particularly, for governments which might seek to guide the future of Australian agriculture—in addition to productivity more generally, including the more efficient allocation of natural resources and the sustainable use of those resources, is how we attract the significant amounts of investment we will require to fully capitalise on those opportunities.

I welcome the Minister for Agriculture here. It is good to see he is speaking in another debate on the second reading of a bill. It is becoming a regular practice, although he was not prepared to do so on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015 last week—but I will return to that.

But how do we attract this investment, and how much will we need? I have cited the Greener pastures report here before, and I give credit to the member for Hume, who was, I think, one of the primary authors of the report. Amongst other things, it suggested that out to 2050 we would need $600 billion—that is with a b—worth of investment in agriculture if we are to fully realise our dreams. It is axiomatic that, as an island continent with a population of 23 million or 24 million people, we just do not have the domestic savings to meet that hunger for investment. On that basis, as has always been the case, as a country we will remain heavily reliant on the savings of others for that investment. There is a lot of talk about our domestic superannuation funds, and like everyone in this place I would like to see more of our domestic savings through our superannuation funds going into Australian agriculture, but even if we took all of it it would not be enough. So we need this investment desperately.

So the question becomes: does this bill enhance our prospects on that front or make it more difficult? It is fair to say that this bill sends all the wrong signals. Competition for capital around the world is intense, and those looking to secure returns in agriculture as an opportunity to exploit growing demand around the world have many choices. They can invest in places like New Zealand or South America, or they can come here to Australia. Of course they will look at where the returns are, but they will also look for the path of least resistance. All this bill will do is create a huge logjam at the Foreign Investment Review Board, which will be dealing with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of applications which, in the scheme of things, are an 11th-order issue and are unlikely to derive an adverse report of any description from the FIRB. This bill will send away foreign investment in this country. It is also a gouge. It dramatically increases application fees, putting money into the coffers of this government but at the same time acting as a further disincentive to that investment.

I return to what I said in the beginning: this is just a dog whistle. This is a message to rural Australia, feeding off those concerns people have—legitimate concerns, mainly due to misinformation about the level of Asian investment in Australian farmland. We recognised this concern in government, and we were the first to suggest that we should have a foreign investment register in this country. We left office before we had the opportunity to implement that. The now government said it would do the same. It has taken two years for it to do so, and we are told that we still will not have a register until about January next year as I understand it. That will be well on track to three years that it has taken this government to do the most important thing, and that is to build transparency into the equation so people, with the click of a mouse, can quickly see who is investing in what where and how much they are paying.

That is what we need. We need, as leaders in this place, not to be fuelling the misunderstandings in the regions and the unnecessary concerns, but to be showing leadership and demonstrating to people—showing people and helping people to fully comprehend—that foreign investment in our agriculture sector is unequivocally a good thing. We simply cannot get enough of it.

I have mainly spoken about agriculture; I should say something about agribusiness. We do have a future in food manufacturing in this country. We must have a future in food manufacturing in this country. We have a very solid food manufacturing sector in this country, when you think of meat processing and dairy, for example, as key manufacturers—and they are, and they have a very bright future. The range of the endeavours in the future will be almost limitless, if we are smart.

We do need to make sure that we do not put unnecessary red tape in the way of those investors. And this bill does that for agribusiness. It goes to the first-stage manufacturers. That means someone who is producing a jam, for example, gets caught up on this.

If we want to expand food manufacturing we need investment, and this is the wrong way to go about it. Dare I say, country-of-origin labelling is a bit the same. Asking people to implement this thing—after this government procrastinated for so long—within six to 12 month periods will cause unnecessary red tape and compliance issues and cost; that is something that this government said it was going to do just the opposite of.

The opposition does not oppose these measures. We will send them to a Senate committee, though. We will have these discriminatory thresholds scrutinised for the likely adverse impacts on Australian agriculture and Australian agribusiness.
It has been a tumultuous week in Canberra, with the execution of a first term Prime Minister. That is obviously going to cause disruption right across the government. The minister at the table, Minister Joyce, made it clear in the lead-up to the change that he thought that the bloke from Point Piper was likely to produce bad results for rural and regional Australia. I share those concerns about the extent to which the new Prime Minister understands the needs and aspirations and challenges of rural and regional Australia. But it is very clear that in particular the Minister for Agriculture has very grave concerns about the leadership change and what it may mean for rural and regional Australia. To his credit, and typically, he made those concerns very well-known in a very, very public way. The problem now is that he has gone very quiet. He now claims that he has an agreement. He has an agreement with the new Prime Minister that is going to do wonderful things—it is as if he has extracted all of these concessions from the new Prime Minister that are going to change the face of rural and regional Australia. The only problem with that is that he has given us no details. He has given us no details of these concessions that he has extracted—with great pain to the Prime Minister—from the new Prime Minister. The details are very vague, at best, in this new red-hot deal that he has for rural and regional Australia. We are told that the Prime Minister has promised that it will take the effects-test back to cabinet. But there is no promise that it will have an effect, and of course that is causing an enormous rift, not only between the National and Liberal parties, but of course for those within the National Party; there seem to be a few different views.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Broadbent):  There is no rift between Mr Joyce and me, Member for Hunter.

Mr FITZGIBBON:  I beg your pardon?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER:  There is no rift between Mr Joyce and me.

Mr FITZGIBBON:  Oh, I absolutely accept that and respect that, Mr Deputy Speaker. But the minister at the table can fix this today if, when he rises to his feet, he simply tables the coalition agreement. What is the big secret, Minister? Surely the Australian people, particularly those living in rural and regional Australia, are entitled to know the basis on which you have now rolled over, to exclaim that you think the election of Malcolm Turnbull—the boy from Point Piper—is a good thing for rural and regional Australia. It is very simple, Minister: just get to your feet—

Mr Joyce interjecting—

Mr FITZGIBBON:  when I sit down in nine seconds time, table the coalition agreement, and show us, in writing, what these concessions are that you extracted from the Prime Minister, because I think they are nil. (Time expired)

 


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