There is no story of modesty here as the government is trying to frame it; 30% of the Northern Territory’s farmland is now foreign-owned, 22% of Tassie; that’s extraordinary. – Katter’s Australian Party federal MP Bob Katter, interview, September 10, 2016.
Foreign ownership of Australian agricultural land is not new. Foreign cattle barons owned large areas of land in the Australian outback throughout much of the 20th century.
However, foreign investors’ interest in large tracts of farmland, and the federal treasurer’s decision to block the sale of the S. Kidman and Co cattle properties to a Chinese buyer, have helped fuel public debate on the issue.
When the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) released a new Agricultural Land Register in early September, federal MP Bob Katter said that 30% of Northern Territory farmland and 22% of Tasmanian farmland is now foreign-owned.
Is that right?
Checking the source
The Conversation asked a spokesperson for Bob Katter for sources to support his assertion but did not hear back before deadline.
Nevertheless, it’s clear Katter was referring to the Australian Taxation Office’s new Register of Foreign Ownership of Agricultural Land.
The register lists investors who are legally required to report their interests in Australian agricultural land - whether that interest is freehold (meaning owned outright) or leasehold (meaning the land is rented).
Under rules announced in early 2015, investors must now notify the tax office within 30 days if they:
- Are a foreign person starting to hold agricultural land
- Are a foreign person ceasing to hold agricultural land
- Become a foreign person while holding agricultural land
- Cease to be a foreign person while holding agricultural land
- Are a foreign person holding land that becomes agricultural land or
- Are a foreign person holding land that ceases to be agricultural land
To build the register, the ATO collects investors’ names, contact details, country of incorporation and Australian Business Number or equivalent identifier. For individual investors, the ATO recorded their nationality, and passport and visa details. It also collects the land title details.
The ATO report covers registrations made between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016.
What does the report show?
The report shows that the largest amount of foreign agricultural land is held by investors from the United Kingdom, in control of 27.5 million hectares. Investors from the the United States (7.7 million hectares) hold the second largest amount of land, followed by the Netherlands (3.0 million hectares). Chinese investors hold the fifth largest amount of land, with about 1.5 million hectares.
Leasing vs owning
Bob Katter correctly quoted the percentages from the report, but his wording wasn’t quite accurate. He didn’t differentiate between foreign-owned and foreign-leased land.
To be fair, though, it’s not unusual for land to be leased for long periods of time – even as much as 99 years. So in practice, the difference between owning and leasing may be moot. The register doesn’t specify the length of the leases, saying only that:
An interest in agricultural land includes a freehold interest or the right to occupy land under a lease (including a sublease or licence) where the term of the lease or licence (including any extension or renewal) is reasonably likely to exceed five years.
What we do know is that the register shows that 30.1% of agricultural land in the Northern Territory and 21.8% of agricultural land in Tasmania is held by foreign interests.
As detailed in the chart below, the register shows that almost all of the foreign-held agricultural land in the Northern Territory is leased (but the register doesn’t say exactly how long the leases are).
In Tasmania, the numbers are very different. The register shows that of the farmland there that is held by foreigners, about 88% of it is freehold – meaning it is owned by a foreign interest.
Much of the land identified in the report, particularly in the Northern Territory, is likely to be Crown leasehold. This means ultimate ownership rights remain with the Australian government, and lessees are required to manage the land in line with Australian property, agricultural and environmental laws.
How does this compare to the past?
We don’t know for sure, because the ATO register is the first of its kind.
The main previous source of official data on this issue was the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Agricultural Land and Water Ownership Survey, run in 2010 and 2013.
Of the 400 million hectares of agricultural land in Australia, nearly 50 million hectares had some level of foreign ownership; this is up by around 5 million hectares, an increase of 11% on the 2010 result.
The ABS reported 31.7% of Northern Territory farmland as foreign-owned in 2013. Unfortunately, the Tasmanian data from the 2013 survey was not published.
If we compare the ATO and ABS data, it appears that the percentage of foreign-held agricultural land in Australia increased slightly between 2013 and 2016. It also appears that the percentage of foreign-held farmland in the Northern Territory fell slightly.
But care must be taken when comparing the results from the ATO register and the ABS survey. The ABS survey presents estimates based on a sample of agricultural businesses listed in the ABS business register, and must be used with care because of potential sampling errors.
It’s likely that the ATO register reflects a more complete record of foreign ownership and leasing than the earlier ABS data.
What don’t we know about foreign control of agricultural land?
Not all the information collected by the ATO has been made public.
The publicly available report doesn’t show who owns the land – it doesn’t show what proportion of the foreign-held land is owned or leased by foreign governments or foreign government investors such as state-owned enterprises.
The register’s guiding legislation states that any publicly reported statistics must not identify investors, which limits what information the ATO can release for public perusal.
Bob Katter got his figures right but his wording was not entirely accurate. It would have been more accurate for him to say that 30% of the Northern Territory’s farmland and about 22% of Tasmania’s farmland is now foreign-held – not foreign-“owned”.
In the Northern Territory, most of the foreign-held land is leased; in Tasmania most of that foreign-held land is owned outright by the foreign entity.
However, the register doesn’t include the length of land leases. For those tracts of land held under very long leases, the practical difference between owning and leasing may not be meaningful. – Erin Smith and Bill Pritchard.
This is a sound FactCheck. I have independently confirmed all data and calculations used in the analysis. The authors are correct in confirming Katter’s claim, with the caveat that the term foreign “held” rather than “owned” should have been used.
Some further – and significant – qualifications of the ATO data can also be drawn out:
While Tasmania and NT have relatively similar overall levels, their sectoral patterns are qualitatively different. As the ATO data show, most foreign-owned land in NT is for livestock production, while in Tasmania nearly all is in the forestry sector.
The legal differences between ownership and leasing are very slight in terms of assessing control and legal compliance matters. While the authors claim that leaseholders are required to meet “all Australian property, agricultural and environmental laws”, this is equally true of freeholders as well.
The ATO report appears not to adjust for the share of a property held by a foreign interest. For example, it does not differentiate between a farm that is 20% foreign-owned and one that is 100% foreign-owned. It is possible that some or even much of the “foreign held” land is actually a minority share in a joint-venture with Australian partners.
Significantly, the report only identifies the “place of incorporation” of the investor, rather than the nationality of the ultimate owner. Much of the British and American interests may well be held by legal persons of third countries, who have incorporated businesses (or bought shares in property trusts) in these jurisdictions. The dominance of the US and UK might therefore reflect a practice of incorporating agribusinesses in these countries, rather than ultimate ownership residing there. – Jeffrey Wilson