CHARTS: Here are the top 10 foreign land owners in Australia

Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty.

The British still own Australia when it comes to agricultural land, according to a national survey of foreign-owned farmland.

The Register of Foreign Ownership of Agricultural Land was prepared by the Turnbull government in response to growing concerns about Chinese investment in Australia’s agriculture sector.

In April, treasurer Scott Morrison blocked the sale of Australia’s largest cattle business, S. Kidman and Co., which covers 100,000 square kilometres of the Australian outback – 1.3% of the country’s total land area, and 2.5% of its agricultural land – to a Chinese majority-controlled consortium on national interest grounds for a second time.

But the figures appear to be very much a preliminary snapshot, compiled by the Australian Tax Office ahead of new laws that came into place on July 1, forcing companies to disclose foreign ownership amid an increasingly rancorous debate about undisclosed or hidden Chinese investment in property and agriculture in Australia. A better picture of who owns what in Australia may not emerge for another 12 months in the wake of the tougher disclosure laws, and may lead to a substantial jump in foreign holdings.

But the ATO will not disclose who owns the land to accompany the findings, identifying the owners by nationality only. Under the rules developed by the government and Morrison, the register “must not release information which could identify, or reasonably be used to identify an individual or entity”.

The register, released today, concludes that land more than twice the size of Victoria is foreign-owned and that figure has grown by 2.5 million hectares in the last three years.

At the end of FY16, 52.1 million hectares – 521,000 km2 – of Australian farmland was owned by foreign interests according to the register.

Of that figure, less than 20% is freehold – 9.4m ha – with 43.4m ha held as leasehold. Foreign ownership is most prevalent in Queensland (17.7m ha), followed by the Northern Territory (15.2m ha), Western Australia (8.8m ha), South Australia (7.2m ha), NSW/ACT (2.4m ha), Victoria (607,000 ha) and Tasmania (342,000 ha).

Last year, a survey by ABC Rural found a quarter of Northern Territory pastoral leases were wholly or partly foreign-owned. ABC Rural concluded 12 months ago that of 223 pastoral leases, 47 had some form of foreign ownership, covering a land mass of 149,702 km2, which was 25.1% of the 596,310 km2 pastoral estate – 44% – of the Territory’s total land mass.

But while the total land owned by foreign entities across Australia has increased in recent years, more tellingly, the total amount of agricultural land in Australia has shrunk to 384.6m ha – 3.8 million km2 – from the 2013 ABS survey estimate of 400m ha, a loss of more than 15m ha. In 2010, the figure was 398m ha.

The top four foreign landholders in Australia are the United Kingdom, followed by the United States, Netherlands and Singapore. China is fifth on the table, just ahead of the Philippines, with 1.5m ha, just 2.8% of the total of foreign owned land. To put that in perspective, Chinese interests have less than 15% of the size of the S. Kidman and Co land-holdings.

But one thing the survey doesn’t measure is the property values or the GDP they generate. While large swathes of the Top End are used for grazing, it’s often marginal land with lower yields and the beef produced is used for export markets.

Foreign investment further south tends to be smaller but of higher value, such as the 19,000ha Tasmanian dairy business Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDL), which was bought last year by a consortium that included two Chinese companies with a 70% stake. The remaining 30% is owned by a company owned by the Melbourne-based Lemp­riere family, who also have a 20% stake in the 96,000 ha Chinese-owned cotton farm, Cubbie Station, in south-west Queensland.

The contradiction is that foreign investors own more properties in NSW than anywhere else – at nearly 1800 of more than 7200 properties nationally, that’s a quarter of the total – but they are much smaller landholdings. In comparison, the 15.2m ha in the Northern Territory is divided across just 71 properties as this chart from the register shows:

Source: Register of foreign ownership of agricultural land

The predominant investment in all states (bar Victoria) is in livestock, although cropping plays a strong role in NSW at around a quarter of the state’s total, as this chart shows:

Source: Register of foreign ownership of agricultural land

And here are the top 10 source countries for foreign investment in Australian agricultural land at June 30, 2016:

• UK – 27.5 million ha (52.7% of foreign-owned agricultural land, or 7.2% of total Australian agricultural land)
• USA – 7.7 million ha (14.8% of foreign-owned or 2% of total agricultural land)
• Netherlands – 2.98 million ha (5.7% of foreign-owned or 0.8% of total)
• Singapore – 1.9 million ha (3.6% of foreign-owned or 0.5% of total)
• China – 1.5 million ha (2.8% of foreign-owned or 0.4% of total)
• Philippines – 1.1 million ha (2.2% of foreign-owned or 0.3% of total)
• Switzerland – 1.1 million ha (2.1% of foreign-owned or 0.3% of total)
• Jersey – 0.9 million ha (1.8% of foreign-owned or 0.25% of total)
• Indonesia – 0.8 million ha (1.5% of foreign-owned or 0.2% of total)
• Japan – 0.7 million ha (1.3% of foreign-owned or 0.18% of total)

While the report does not detail the owners, Singapore investment is most likely to belong to one man, expatriate Australian retailer Brett Blundy, who owns four Northern Territory cattle properties through his Singapore-based business Brett Blundy Retail Capital (BBRC).

But the company says it has more than 2.35m ha under its management – considerably more than the 1.9 million ha listed on the register.

The register says its stocktake was done between July 1, 2015, and February 29, 2016, following changes introduced by the Turnbull government last year. The ATO matches land titles, immigration and other third party data sources to identify foreign investors who may not have recorded their land on the Agricultural Land Register. From July 1, foreign companies must report their ownership within 30 days to the ATO.

The ATO report is welcome news for treasurer Scott Morrison, under political pressure on all sides after his high profile rejection of a Chinese bid to lease NSW power network Ausgrid on national security grounds, his second major rebuff to Chinese investors after the S Kidman knock back.

On the release today, Morrison said that with more than $3 trillion in foreign investment in Australia, “we cannot afford to risk our economic future by engaging in protectionism”.

“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.

Deputy prime minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce welcomed the register saying “the common perception that the level of foreign ownership has been increasing seems confirmed”.

“From now on the annual reports from the land register will give us more accurate data on which to base public discussion,” he said.

The full register is online here.