Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (13:25): Like my colleagues on this side of the House, in both the Liberal Party and the Nationals, I rise to speak in support of the package of three bills to strengthen Australia’s foreign investment framework—the Foreign Investments and Takeovers Legislation Amendment Bill 2015 and two related bills. It is a great pleasure to follow my friend the member for Gellibrand, who gave us a lot of misinformation and accusations about double standards and hypocrisy and suggested that the people on this side were conflicted in relation to our dealings with China but failed to mention that the basic problem with the argument from a Labor perspective is that they are opposed to the Chinese free trade agreement. The member for Gellibrand has left the chamber, but I look forward to catching up with him soon and hearing more about how he now supports investment between Australia and China.
It is always very amusing for members who come from regional communities—like my colleagues the member for Forrest, Nola Marina, and the member for Lyons, here behind me, Eric Hutchinson—and who actually represent farmers in this place to get lectures from members such as the member for Gellibrand about farming. He talked about increasing agricultural productivity but then failed to acknowledge that the Chinese free trade agreement actually provides more opportunities for Australian farmers to deal with the Chinese market and puts them on a level playing field with our Kiwi cousins. We are at a price disadvantage right now with New Zealand, particularly with Fonterra. The Chinese free trade agreement actually provides opportunities for us to trade into that market on a more competitive basis.
So, I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue, and I welcome the contribution from the member for Gellibrand, because it just shows how hopelessly conflicted the Australian Labor Party is on this issue. I refer to the second reading speech by the member for North Sydney, about the nature of the legislation before the House. As he indicated, it is all about making sure that this legislative package will ensure that Australia has a welcoming environment for investment and also one that ensures that the investment is not contrary to our national interest. Surely that is the fundamental reason we are here debating this bill today—making sure that the foreign investment that occurs in Australia in the future is not contrary to our national interest. It adds more integrity to the system so that everybody plays by the rules, and with that integrity comes the opportunity for more compliance measures. I expect—and I think the vast majority of people throughout Australia who have raised this issue with me also expect—that our foreign investment rules are strong, that they are effective and that they are actually enforceable.
With this package of bills before the House we are implementing an election promise and keeping faith with the Australian people on our commitment to increase scrutiny and transparency around foreign investment in agriculture. These bills are common-sense bills, and they have the support of the vast majority of regional Australians I have had the opportunity to meet with in my role as a member of parliament for the past seven years. Foreign purchase of agricultural land is an issue of great interest to people not only in my electorate of Gippsland but, more broadly, throughout regional Australia. Fundamental to the issue is getting a handle on exactly what is going on in our nation right now. There is an opportunity here to properly measure what is occurring throughout regional Australia rather than guessing, as has been the case in the past. So, when these new measures were announced in February I said that people in my electorate would welcome this legislation, and that has been the case in the ensuing months as I have met with people throughout Gippsland.
The vast majority of people in regional areas are not opposed to foreign investment as such and recognise that foreign investment has been critical to the economic development and the growth of Australia, not just regional Australia. We know that when it comes to agriculture the foreign investment regime strengthens our economy, promotes growth and can be in our national interest. But that does not mean that we should not apply proper oversight to the rules as they apply in this nation. These measures are not about stopping foreign investment but are about providing Australians with more information about who is buying land in our nation and how much land they are buying. As other speakers have recognised, foreign investments can bring many benefits and can support both existing jobs and the opportunity for new jobs.
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (17:08): Before I recommence my comments in relation to the bill before the House: the Minister for Defence has recently made an important contribution in a ministerial statement in relation to Australia’s involvement in the Middle East, in particular Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and I would like to join with him and associate myself with the comments of both the minister and the member for Sydney on behalf of the Nationals. It is good to see such a bipartisan spirit in relation to our commitment to help protect and train foreign forces in a way that is helping to provide some prospect at least of peace and stability in a troubled region of the world. I had the opportunity earlier this year as part of the ADF Parliamentary Program to travel to the Middle East with a contingent of members of parliament. We went to Afghanistan and had the great experience of spending some time with our troops on the ground and seeing the work they are doing working with the Afghan National Army in helping to put them in a position where they can perhaps survive the fighting season and deliver more security for the people of Afghanistan. It was a great pleasure, honour and privilege for the members of parliament who were part of that program. So, I associate myself with the comments made by the minister during his ministerial statement.
In relation to the bill before the House, the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Legislation Amendment Bill: as I was saying before the break, I think it is well recognised that increased investment, both from within Australia and from overseas, will be vital to realising Australia’s agriculture’s potential for further growth. According to a report three years ago, Greener pastures: the global soft commodity opportunity for Australia and New Zealand, which was commissioned by the ANZ bank, an estimated A$600 billion in new capital is needed through to 2050 to generate higher levels of growth and profitability in Australian agriculture. At the same time, it is essential that suitable checks and balances are in place to ensure that foreign investments are not contrary to our national interest and provide flow-on benefits for farmers, for the communities around them and for the national economy. All foreign investors must pay tax on their business profits made in Australia. Furthermore, the government requires any business operating in Australia, whether locally or foreign owned, to operate in accordance with Australian law, including Australian tax laws.
The coalition government has taken several steps to increase scrutiny and transparency around foreign ownership of agricultural land. This includes developing a foreign ownership register of agricultural land. The coalition is also significantly lowering the monetary threshold for screening of foreign investment proposals related to agricultural land and agribusiness from about $250 million down to $15 million and $53 million, respectively. The previous threshold was actually quite meaningless, because it enabled foreign buyers to purchase large tracts of land below that threshold. It would take a lot of dairy farms and a lot of vegetable flats in the electorate of Gippsland to ever trigger that threshold.
The legislation before the House has widespread support in the community. National Farmers’ Federation President Brent Finlay said it would ensure a fact based discussion about who owns what in Australia. He said: ‘We know that 99 per cent of Australian farms are owned by Australian families’ and ‘We need to see who’s buying what so that we can have an informed discussion.’ National Farmers’ Federation Acting Chief Executive Tony Maher said that his organisation welcomed overseas investment but supported the current policy of close scrutiny.
In conclusion, Australians are, rightly, concerned about foreign investment, particularly in relation to agriculture. A poll conducted by the Lowy Institute for International Policy found that in 2013 a majority of Australians still considered that ‘the Australian government is allowing too much investment from China’, an attitude largely unchanged since 2010. I fear that a lot of that concern is driven by fear rather than by facts. So, I congratulate the minister on bringing this legislation to the House so that we will have the facts before us. People need information. They need information at their fingertips, and that is what this bill seeks to address. It can never be a bad thing to give people more facts to make informed decisions. Foreign investment is and will continue to be vital to the future prosperity of regional Australia. But it is equally important that we have a robust and transparent process to give us a clear picture of which foreign entities are investing on our soil. I commend the bills to the House.