Fears that Chinese investors will soon own massive swathes of Australia were doused on Wednesday after the federal government released official data showing China owns vastly less land than nations like Britain and the US.
The inaugural publication of the Register of Foreign Ownership of Agricultural Land revealed that Chinese companies own 1.46 million hectares of agricultural land, representing only about 0.5 per cent of the national stock.
The data indicated that Australians should be more concerned about British investors, who own 7.2 per cent of all land used for agricultural activity across the continent.
The UK is easily the largest foreign owner of Australian land ahead of the United States (2 per cent) and the Netherlands (0.7 per cent).
China is the fifth-largest landowner behind Singapore.
As exclusive research by The New Daily in February 2015 showed, public concerns surrounding Chinese investment in agricultural land may be overdone, but the scale of China’s stake in the residential property market remains unclear.
Publication of the national data confirms the findings of a 2014 research report by the Parliamentary Library that found the USA and the UK were among the leading foreign investors in Australian agriculture between 2007 and 2012.
The federal government last year commissioned the Tax Office to conduct annual audits of foreign ownership amid heated public debate over the level of Chinese investment.
Foreign ownership up slightly since 2010
The stock of foreign-owned agricultural land has risen slightly since 2010, when the Parliamentary Library estimated that 89 per cent of rural property was owned locally.
According to the Tax Office, Australians now own 86.4 per cent.
However, the level of foreign ownership is not consistent across the country, with Tasmania and Northern Territory posting the highest rates of 22 per cent and 30 per cent respectively.
NSW and Victoria had the lowest rates of foreign ownership at 4.1 per cent and 5.1 per cent respectively.
Despite empirical evidence showing that the level of Chinese ownership is relatively benign, Queensland politicians are stepping up their campaigns against foreign purchases.
Queensland MP Bob Katter said the national data confirmed the threat posed by foreign ownership to the country’s rural and food processing industries.
“Forget about your grandkids getting on to the land, that can’t happen, they can’t compete,” Mr Katter said.
“In most of these countries buying into Australia, they can borrow money at 2.5 to 3.5 per cent.
“In Australia, it is impossible to borrow money for agriculture for less than 8 per cent, which gives our competition a massive advantage.”
The National Farmers Federation (NFF) welcomed the release of the national data saying that it dispelled many myths about foreign investment in the agricultural sector.
“Australia needs foreign investment generally, and our deteriorating public finances only make this reliance greater,” NFF chief executive Tony Mahar said.
“The NFF has long called for a register of this nature to provide firm data around the foreign ownership debate and we most certainly welcome the release of this report.
“In saying that, we believe more detail is required than has been offered today, particularly in terms of the regional location of foreign-owned properties and the nature of the investment entity.”
Chinese more focused on residential property in Qld
Data published earlier this year by the Queensland government indicates that Chinese investors are more active in residential real estate than farm properties.
Chinese buyers accounted for around 62 per cent of all land acquired in 2015 by foreign buyers in the Gold Coast municipality.
In the City of Brisbane, Chinese nationals accounted for 37 per cent of all land bought by foreigners during the year.
But the total land area owned by Chinese investors was 65 hectares – well behind British titleholders who held 626 hectares.