By ABC regional affairs reporter Lucy Barbour
The Federal Government's long-awaited farm register reveals investors from the United Kingdom have easily the biggest stake in foreign-owned farmland in Australia.
The register, compiled by the Australian Tax Office, shows 13.6 per cent of Australia's farmland is foreign-owned. UK-based investors own 27.5 million hectares or almost 53 per cent of that portion.
The United States is the second highest country on the register, followed by the Netherlands with almost 3 million hectares, Singapore with almost 2 million hectares, and China with 1.5 million hectares — or less than 0.5 per cent of total agricultural land across the country.
The Philippines, Switzerland, Jersey, Indonesia and Japan round out the top 10 foreign buyers.
Interests in the Philippines and Switzerland own 1 million hectares, while Jersey, Indonesia and Japan own just less than that with 0.9 million, 0.8 million and 0.7 million hectares respectively.
But the register does not specify where foreign governments or foreign government investors own land. Much of the public angst about foreign investment is linked to concerns over state-owned enterprises buying Australian farms.
Executive director of the Australian Farm Institute Mick Keogh said he was surprised China did not appear to own more.
"It may well be that the Chinese interest has been in industries like the dairy industry and farms in southern Australia, and again they are smaller acreages but perhaps more productive," he said.
"But certainly you would have anticipated that Chinese interests would have been higher up the register than that."
Mr Keogh said the strong UK ownership could be attributed to Australia's colonial past.
"Certainly vestiges are very prominent in ownership of land and also the major pastoral houses in Australia all had English origins, so I guess what we are seeing is a continuation of that historical link that has always been there," he said.
Report shows 'who owns what'
Acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who has been a long-term advocate for the register, said the report provided the basic transparency necessary to ensure oversight and confidence in agricultural investment.
Foreign-owned farmland by state:
"This is the first comprehensive data on the actual level of foreign ownership of agricultural land in Australia," he said in a statement.
"This common perception that the level of foreign ownership has been increasing seems confirmed.
"Previous estimates by ABS surveys found at June 2013, 12.4 per cent or 49.6 million hectares out of 400 million hectares was foreign owned.
"This has also increased on the December 2010 survey estimate of 11.3 per cent or 44.9 million hectares out of 398 million hectares being foreign owned."
But Treasurer Scott Morrison said "foreign investment is integral to Australia's economy."
"It contributes to growth, productivity and creates jobs, but the community must have confidence that this investment is in the national interest," he said.
"With more than $3 trillion worth of foreign investment in Australia today, we cannot afford to risk our economic future by engaging in protectionism."
Maranoa MP wants productivity tests for foreign buyers
But if the Federal Government had approved the sale of the 10 million hectare cattle empire S Kidman and Co. to a Chinese company, China would have placed second highest on the register.
Key findings of farm register:
It is one reason there is a growing push within the National Party for tighter foreign ownership restrictions.
The Government has already reduced the thresholds for scrutiny of foreign investment in Australian farms and agribusinesses by the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) significantly.
The newly elected member for the south-west Queensland seat of Maranoa, David Littleproud, said all foreign buyers should be forced to undertake a "productivity test" to demonstrate their "carrying capacity" and to specify exactly what the land would be used for.
"We would have the expertise on the (FIRB) to acknowledge whether that is reasonable or not and then it should be on the onus of those owners to continue to prove that to the FIRB year in year out, and there should be some dispossession powers given to the FIRB and to the Treasurer," Mr Littleproud said.
"Because I am hearing at a local level that land has been locked up and [foreign buyers] have walked away, and in fact the environmental gains they are trying to get are for overseas.
"The reality is they have got the land and they do not know what to do with it, and basically it is contributing nothing to this country."
The farm register shows the greatest portion of foreign-owned agricultural land is in Queensland, followed by the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia.Tasmania has the least amount of foreign-owned farmland.