MELBOURNE — The presence of investors from China jockeying for Australian farmland — including territories the size of South Korea — is fueling concerns that too much of the country is being sold to foreign investors.
And with an election imminent, the government in Canberra is sending a message to voters that it shares these concerns — at least for now.
As Australians prepare to go to the polls on July 2, a survey by think tank the Lowy Institute revealed that 87% of Australians oppose laws that allow foreign companies to buy farmland. An increasing number of high-profile foreign acquisitions of farmland have stirred fears in Australia of, among other things, the prospect of future food insecurity. Then there are concerns over state assets being sold overseas.
The results of that survey are both telling and timely. In April, the government made a preliminary decision to block the sale of most of the nation’s largest cattle empire, S. Kidman & Co., to a consortium led by Chinese company Dakang Australia Holdings. Dakang was planning to buy an 80% stake for $275 million.
In delaying movement on any deal for 90 days, Treasurer Scott Morrison said he was acting in the national interest. Morrison suggested that if Kidman were instead to carve up its empire — a series of properties collectively as big as South Korea — and sell to a number of buyers, Australian companies would be able to match offers coming in from China.
Months on, Kidman’s owners still want out — and say that selling their properties separately would reduce their overall value — while Chinese investors still seem the most eager to buy in.
Equally apparent is that by stalling the sale, the conservative Liberal-National party coalition, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, has successfully avoided any fallout from such a deal during the longest election campaign Australia has seen in almost 50 years.
According to Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board, Chinese investors in 2014-2015 poured some $1.8 billion into the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector, more than double the amount of investment from the U.S. Investors from China also spent $18 billion on real estate in Australia — more than three times the next highest spenders from the U.S.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that campaigning ahead of the July 2 vote has at times centered on the simplistic mantra that it is important to keep Australia Australia-owned