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Feds to tighten scrutiny of foreign farmland purchases

12 February, 2015

Farmland sales to foreign purchasers will be more tightly scrutinised from next month, the federal government announced on Wednesday, though a launch date for the long-awaited national register of foreign-ownership is still yet to be finalised.

Touring a sheep grazing property just outside Canberra, PM Tony Abbott said any kind of foreign investment should only be in the nation's interest.

He said from March 1 the Commonwealth threshold for scrutiny of farmland sales by the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) will lowered from $240 million to a cumulative $15 million.

The decision is line with tighter restrictions written into FTAs struck with Japan, China and Korea last year, which lowered the threshold for scrutiny of farmland purchases to $15 million, and for agribusiness purchases to $53 million.

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said: "In the past we were left with the ridiculous scenario, where someone could go to the north of Yass and buy $240 million worth of property one day, then go to the south of Yass and buy another $240 million worth of land the next day, then go to the west of Yass and buy another $240 million, and the next day, buy another."

The ALP said it supported the move to make foreign investment more transparent through foreign-owned farmland register, but deemed the tightening of existing FIRB thresholds unnecessary.

"Lower thresholds on agricultural land will be a red-tape nightmare for potential investors and risk driving investors elsewhere at a time Australian agriculture is hungry for capital," a statement from the ALP said.

More certainty about national register

The National Farmers' Federation (NFF) remained "cautiously optimistic" about the announcement. NFF Chief Executive Simon Talbot said farmers still had many unanswered questions about the national register.

"When is the register going to be publicly available? What sort of forensic accounting or scrutiny is going to be applied to both existing purchases plus future purchases? Because what's signed at the front end might be very different to the back end of a particular deal," he said.

"The two elements missing for us, which we hope we'll have consultation on, are water rights and water licences first and foremost, and also infrastructure downstream [such as food processing or manufacturing plants]."

Talbot said the NFF did welcome the move to tighten thresholds.

"It's good to see a step forward. We would encourage the government to continue to work with us on finetuning the details," he said.

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