An overwhelming majority of Australians support tighter restrictions on farm sales to foreigners, the ABC’s Vote Compass data has revealed.
That view is shared across the country but is strongest in rural communities — perhaps providing insight into why the Turnbull Government effectively knocked back the sale of Australia’s largest cattle empire to a foreign-led consortium.
Foreign investment in agriculture has been a political hot potato for years.
Recently, community unease has centred around a proposal to sell Australia’s largest private landholder, S. Kidman & Co, to a Chinese-led consortium, as well as a decision by the NT Government to lease the Port of Darwin to a Chinese-owned company.
Now Vote Compass data based on more than 200,000 respondents shows 80 per cent of Australians agree there should be tighter restrictions on farm sales to foreigners.
That sentiment crosses age, gender and party lines. Both rural and urban Australians are in favour of tighter restrictions — although the sentiment is strongest among rural respondents.
Overall, 48 per cent of Vote Compass respondents strongly agreed there should be more restrictions on foreign ownership, 32 per cent somewhat agreed, 7 per cent somewhat disagreed and 2 per cent strongly disagreed. Eleven per cent were neutral.
Voters over the age of 55 were more opposed to foreign ownership than younger respondents.
The result is similar to 2013, when the same question was asked and 76 per cent of Vote Compass respondents agreed there should be further restrictions.
Views polarised in rural communities
On the ground in regional Australia, foreign ownership of farms is a debate that has polarised communities.
Dirranbandi in southern Queensland is home to Australia’s largest cotton farm, the iconic Cubbie Station.
In 2012, Cubbie was in receivership and the best offer was from a Chinese-led consortium.
While federal authorities, including the Foreign Investment Review Board, scrutinised the bid, community members vented their outrage.
“I was very strongly opposed to the sale of Cubbie Station to foreign owners,” said former Balonne Shire mayor Donna Stewart.
“Cubbie Station is an icon of Australia, as we all know, it’s the largest irrigation property in the southern hemisphere, and I didn’t want to see it passed into foreign hands.”
At the time, Ms Stewart feared a loss of employment in Dirranbandi and surrounding towns, a downturn in the local economy and mismanagement of the water and land.
The foreign takeover was ultimately approved, with Shandong RuYI taking an 80 per cent share of the 93,000-hectare station.
Fast forward four years to today and Ms Stewart’s views have changed.
“Shandong RuYi and Lempriere the Australian interests have done an amazing job with Cubbie,” she said.
“They’ve further developed it, they’ve brought the cotton gin, they’ve doubled the capacity of the cotton gin, they’ve put processes in at the gin that has enabled them to make bigger profits.”
Foreign investment in dairy sector gives positive insight
Not unlike the Cubbie Station experience, the takeover of Australia’s oldest dairy processor two years ago was met with initial concern. But in the years since, the fears have calmed.
Suppliers have reported very little change to the south-western Victorian processor Warrnambool Cheese and Butter after it was taken over by Canadian processor Saputo in 2014.
Nick Renyard’s farm produces 4 million litres of milk from a herd of 500 cows each year, with all the milk his farm produces going to the now foreign-owned entity.
“From a suppliers’ point of view, they did say when they were taking over it would be business as usual, suppliers would see very little change, and in so far as our relationship with the milk factory, there has been very little change,” he said.
“When people do reach the end of their farming career or want to do something different, they’re looking to get the best deal they can for their farm. Then they’re best able to go into whatever they want to do next, be it retirement or another business.”
Debate rages on social media
Whilst concern in the communities near Warrnambool and Dirranbandi has died down, angst from other parts of regional Australia is shown most vividly on social media.
On a horse stud outside Oakey, 150 kilometres west of Brisbane, vet David Pascoe is a strident critic of foreign investment, along with his 16,000-strong Facebook community.
“We need it very much controlled because agriculture is our only renewable asset that this country has got left, and without that we have no long term economic future,” he said.
“We’ve got to have a long-term future and a long-term strategy.
“We can’t rely on mining because we’ve just had the second biggest mining boom in our history and we’re still horribly broke, so agriculture has always paid this nation’s way and it will continue to do so in the future because we know that food is a renewable source and it’s in demand all around the world.”
Dr Pascoe said he feared for future generations if Australian farm land was increasingly sold to foreign buyers.
He said he wanted more stringent Federal Government control.
“I think we should declare national food bowls on all our prime agricultural land, which is only 4.5 per cent of our country,” Dr Pascoe said.
“We have 7 per cent national parks so why not 4.5 per cent national food bowls run by Australians owned by Australians with all the produce sold within Australia or exported overseas.”
Greater restrictions could limit Australian agriculture
The Vote Compass data has worried some agriculture industry leaders, with experts telling the ABC farms and agribusinesses require about $1 trillion to take advantage of growing food and fibre demand.
Despite this, National Farmers Federation chief executive Tony Mahar said we was unsurprised by the Vote Compass results.
“We’ve always known that investment or foreign investment in agricultural land is an emotive issue and we know it resonates with the Australian community, not only the rural community but those in urban areas as well.”
Mr Mahar said the Farmers Federation understood the negative viewpoint about foreign investment but argued it had a place in agriculture’s future.
“We want to make sure that we manage it and we are aware of the levels and we want to make sure that it has a positive effect on the industry, so there’s a range of caveats to our position, but overall we recognise the huge value that investment — domestic or foreign for that matter — can have to what we think a growing and prosperous industry.”
Mr Mahar said in many instances foreign investment had bolstered the sector and would continue to drive growth in agriculture.
“That all requires investment so we’d love it to come from domestic sources but if there’s an opportunity to add to that from foreign investment then our approach is that we should very much welcome it, consider it, and make sure it’s in the interests of the industry and make sure there’s no negative impacts. But it has to be part of the solution.”
These Vote Compass results are based on 212,170 respondents who participated between May 8 and May 21, 2016. The data has been weighted to ensure the sample reflects the Australian population. [Read the Vote Compass data FAQ]