Australians are not as opposed to Chinese investors buying local farms and agricultural assets as often claimed, the Australia-China Relations Institute said.
Institute deputy director James Laurenceson said a survey by the group showed the Australian public was more nuanced and sophisticated about the benefits and disadvantages of greater foreign investment in agriculture by Chinese companies or wealthy individuals than many politicians appeared to think.
Professor Laurenceson told this week’s Australia-China Business Council forum on agricultural investing that a public opinion survey conducted by his institute did not reveal a much greater xenophobia towards Chinese investors buying farms than any other foreign nationality.
He said while it was true the public was not thrilled by any foreign investment in Australian agriculture, the key to political and public acceptance appeared to lie in Chinese investors being prepared to reduce their stake in any successful bidding consortium as low as possible and practical.
“We know from the 2016 Lowy Institute survey that only 11 per cent of Australians are in favour of allowing foreign companies to buy Australian farmland,” Professor Laurenceson said. “What that figure doesn’t tell you is whether Chinese investment is less preferred than (agricultural land purchases by) other foreigners, or what (changes) might drive approval of such foreign investment at a certain point.”
Foreign Investment Review Board head Brian Wilson earlier told the forum that if Chinese companies wanted to win political approval for their agricultural investments, they should avoid bidding for Australian icon properties such as the Kidman cattle empire.
Professor Laurenceson said the Australia-China Relations Institute’s opinion poll confirmed that, overall, British companies investing in Australian farms were accorded the highest approval scores, while Chinese investors were the least preferred. But he said the difference was not great and faded into indifference when the structure of a foreign agricultural bid was changed. “What drives public approval of foreign investment in agriculture much more than country of origin is the proportion of foreign investment stake,” Prof Laurenceson said.
“According to our data, once you reduce the share of foreign investment — for example it makes great sense for a Chinese company to enter a joint venture with an Australian company — there is only a sense of mild caution from the public; it shows that contrary to the views of many politicians, the public is not scared of foreign investment in agriculture.’’
Professor Laurenceson told the audience of Chinese executives and investors with interest in Australian farm assets, that the poll also showed another key to public acceptance was to maintain a majority of Australian-born executives on any company’s board, and to employ mainly Australian management and staff.
A third tip was that, perhaps unexpectedly, the poll showed the public prefers big foreign investment deals to small single farm purchases, because the contribution large amounts of capital can make to developing the rural sector, regional Australia and the national economy is understood.
Professor Laurenceson said the three changes in the rival Chinese bids made for the $380 million Kidman cattle empire over 12 months, before it became acceptable to Scott Morrison, illustrated the public “tipping point” of acceptance perfectly.
The Treasurer knocked back the first two offers by Shanghai Pengxin in November 2015 and April 2016 as contrary to the national interest, when the Chinese conglomerate had complete ownership of the first bid, and an 80 per cent stake in the second bid.
The winning consortium — approved by Mr Morrison six months after Shanghai Pengxin’s second rejection and following a federal election — had new Chinese bidder Shanghai CRED retaining a 33 per cent stake, with the other two-thirds of the consortium owned by Gina Rinehart.
“The Chinese have quickly learnt that the lower the proportion of their foreign investment, the more acceptable it becomes to the Australian public and the Treasurer,” Professor Laurenceson said.