SYDNEY (AFP) – Australia will tighten scrutiny on overseas investment in farmland, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Wednesday, following concerns about valuable agricultural and mineral assets passing into foreign hands.
Abbott said that from next month any purchase by a foreigner which brings their cumulative farmland investments to more than Aus$15 million ($11.67 million) will be screened by the national regulator.
The Australian Foreign Investment Board currently only screens foreign investment for purchases of agricultural land over Aus$252 million.
“This is not saying that we don’t want foreign investment,” Abbott told reporters.
“We do want foreign investment but it’s got to be the right investment, the right investment that serves our purposes.”
Politicians with rural constituencies have warned against selling farming land to foreign investors, including from Australia’s top trading partner China.
In a joint statement with Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and Treasurer Joe Hockey, Abbott said the government would also establish a foreign ownership register of agricultural land.
“These measures are a significant step in protecting Australia’s national interests and in giving the community greater confidence in our foreign investment regime,” he said.
A study from early 2012 found that foreign firms accounted for about half of the nation’s wheat, dairy, sugar and red meat industries, following a flurry of takeovers in recent years.
But the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation report also showed only 11 percent of farming land was foreign-owned, a level little changed in 30 years.
Abbott also flagged changing the rules for foreign investment in Australia’s booming housing market, amid fears that local buyers were losing out to foreigners, particularly rich Chinese.
“There does need to be better enforcement of the rules for foreign purchases of existing homes so that young people are not priced out of the market,” Abbott said.
He said the government would announce details of the reforms on foreign investment in residential real estate “in coming weeks”.