NICK GRIMM: Joining me now from Canberra is the Federal Trade Minister Craig Emerson. Craig Emerson, thanks very much for coming on and talking to Afternoon Live.
CRAIG EMERSON: Thank you.
GRIMM: You and your Labor colleagues must've whooped with delight when you saw Peter Reith's scathing reaction on Twitter to Tony Abbott running this idea up the Coalition policy flagpole.
EMERSON: Well there you go. We probably don't agree with Peter Reith too often, but we do on this occasion. We also agree with the National Farmers' Federation, which does not support a reduction in the Foreign Investment Review Board's screening threshold. It does support transparency, which means that it supports a national land register. The Labor Government has already said that we will issue a paper because we're very open to the idea of informing the Australian public as to the actual levels and nature of foreign ownership of agricultural land. But this proposal from Mr Abbott and Senator Barnaby Joyce to drop the threshold for private investment in agricultural land will be seen by China, by Korea and by Japan to be discriminating against them, because you see for the United States and New Zealand the threshold is actually over $1,000 million, and for these other countries it would be $15 million.
GRIMM: Okay. You've accused the Coalition of misinforming the public, and of acting irresponsibly. That's a bit strong isn't it?
EMERSON: It's correct. Barnaby Joyce has described Chinese acquisitions of prime farmland as being subject to an exponential increase. Here are the facts: that for all foreign investment in Australian agricultural land, back in 1984, 5.9 per cent of Australian agricultural land was foreign-owned. In 2010 that had increased to 6 per cent – an increase of 0.1 percentage points. Now Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce consider that to be an exponential increase. And you have to wonder here aloud whether they are more interested in harvesting votes than allowing farmers to get on with the job of harvesting their crops. Being locked out of the markets of Korea, of China, and of Japan would be a devastating setback for Australian farmers, when we already export 70 per cent of agricultural production. It'd have to be the dumbest idea in the world to come up with a policy that would scuttle free trade agreement negotiations with China, with Korea, and with Japan. And this is why the National Famers' Federation opposes this policy of reducing the threshold.
GRIMM: Okay. You're essentially saying this is dog whistle politics, aren't you?
EMERSON: What I'm saying is that it's reckless, it's irresponsible, and it's totally against the interests of the Australian farming community. For state-owned enterprises, the Foreign Investment Review Board's screening threshold is zero. That is, every dollar of investment or proposed investment by state-owned enterprises is subject to screening. And, in fact, Bill Heffernan has recognised this. He's concerned, whether he's right or wrong, with state-owned enterprise investment. And he described, frankly, as “bullshit” the idea of reducing the threshold for private investment from $244 million. And that is really where we are. You've got Senator Heffernan already on the public record condemning this. You've got Peter Reith condemning it. And you've got the National Farmers' Federation saying it's a bad idea because it would prejudice our interests in Korea, in China, and in Japan, all of which are big markets for Australia – and for Japan and Korea and China rapidly-expanding markets. What an irresponsible, reckless policy for the sake of trying to pick up a few votes in the bush to actually embrace a policy that would lock us out of the Korean market. You see, in Korea they've done a deal with the United States where the 40 per cent tariff on beef is being reduced over time and eliminated within 15 years. If we have no free trade agreement with Korea, our beef producers will be locked out of that market. And this is what Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott are advocating.
GRIMM: What about the argument, though, that some of this foreign investment coming into this country, and China is one example, it's coming from countries that wouldn't allow Australian investors the same opportunities within their own borders.
EMERSON: Well if we adopt an approach which says we won't allow in Australia what China doesn't allow in China, well that's one policy approach. But what it means is that our farmers get locked out of that market. Now, if the Australian farming community believes that that's a good policy, let them say so. But their representative organisation does not agree with that. It does not agree with reducing the threshold, and for good reason: because the National Farmers' Federation has thought this through. And they know that it is not in the interests of Australian beef producers to get locked out of the Korean market. In relation to China, they have already in place a free trade agreement with New Zealand, such that they have preferred access to that market. Tony Abbott went to China and said that he would accelerate free trade agreement negotiations with China while coming back to Australia and announcing a policy that would kill those negotiations stone dead. This is just rank, political populism from a populist Opposition Leader who is not interested in serious policy, and is not interested in the fortunes of the Australian farming community. And, sadly, neither is Warren Truss, neither is Barnaby Joyce – and that's why they've got the condemnation of Peter Reith, and the opposition to this policy from the National Farmers' Federation.
GRIMM: Okay. But Craig Emerson, what one politician might call populism another might say is evidence of a party listening to what the public is thinking. And there is a perception out there – right or wrong – that large areas of farming land, and I've spoken to farmers myself who believe this, large areas of farming land are falling into the hands … falling into foreign control – and that's upsetting them. Now, does the Government need to move to try and address those concerns that are unsettling a lot of Australians?
EMERSON: We are – through embracing the idea of a land register. And that means that the Australian public will know what's going on, who's buying what. And that's the way to deal with these perceptions which aren't actually matched by the reality, rather than preying on the perceptions, telling people they're right, that in fact that the problem is much worse than they thought, and there's been an exponential increase in Chinese ownership of agricultural land in Australia. The statistics do not bear that out.
GRIMM: Okay. When will we have access to statistics? When will that land register that you've just mentioned there be available to Australians to look at, to see exactly who owns what in this country?
EMERSON: Well our position on the land register is not fundamentally different to the one that was announced today by the Coalition, except that they announced Labor policy. And it will be assembled when it can be done and done in a sensible way such that it doesn't impose massive red tape burdens on Australian business. Sometimes an idea sounds great but you need to make sure that you get the implementation right. There is a land register in Queensland. We think that that's a model worth following. So let's inform the Australian public, but let's not misinform the Australian public in order to try to harvest a few votes in the bush. We are all in favour of openness and transparency. But when it comes to embracing policies that China, Korea and Japan will see as discriminating against them, and they then are in a position to terminate the negotiations on the free trade deal, that is very much damaging the interests of Australian farmers. I don't hear Australian farmers; I do not hear Australian beef producers, saying ‘a price that we're willing to pay for this is to have our market in Korea smashed'. And that would be the consequence of embracing the Coalition's policy. If you can't sell the beef, then you can't make money – and we sell 70 per cent of Australian agricultural produce. Our big and expanding markets are Korea, China and Japan. And these are the three countries where we would be saying – that is, Australia would be saying under an Abbott-led Government – ‘we want to apply a threshold to you, to Korea, to Japan, and to China, of $15 million, but for the United States and New Zealand it will be $1,000 million'. If you were the governments of those countries, how would you regard that? I think that they would regard it as discriminatory, and I wouldn't be surprised if they did. They have indicated to me that they will not agree to free trade agreements which involve a reduction in those thresholds. In fact, some countries are seeking increases in those thresholds. Mr Abbott's policy would kill those negotiations stone dead, and for him to go to China and say ‘I will complete those negotiations' while announcing a policy that will kill that deal needs to be exposed – and that's what I'm doing on your program today.
GRIMM: Okay. Craig Emerson, you've made your point. Thank you very much and we appreciate your time.
- Minister Emerson's Office: (02) 6277 7420
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555