I’ve just finished listening to the ABC’s Waleed Aly interviewing Jock Laurie, president of the National Farmers’ Federation, on the newly-announced register of foreign investment in agricultural land. (You can listen to it too, here.)
Laurie’s position was effectively: “We know our members are panicking needlessly about a foreign land grab, but try telling them that.”
The register is pretty silly: we have ABS statistics on foreign ownership, which apparently (feel free to correct me) say that 89 per cent of local agricultural land is fully Australian-owned. We don’t really need anything more than these sorts of numbers.
But as Laurie acknowledged over and over, a lot of country people don’t believe the numbers. Spurred on by the normal low-quality rural policy debate, they talk about a vast Chinese buy-up. As Laurie himself noted, if everything he’d heard was true, half the country would already have been sold to foreigners.
The interview made clear that Laurie thinks the rural people worrying about a Chinese land grab are delusional. The ABS statistics are right, and the fears of a foreign takeover of Australian food are ridiculous. But Laurie couldn’t come out and say that his members are delusional; he’d be out of a job. So instead he used about a dozen variations on “let’s have the debate” and “at the moment the discussion is not based on fact” and “I don’t think it hurts to ask the question”.
At the same time he pointed out that the NFF have “never said that there is a problem” with foreign investment in agriculture. And he noted, correctly, that the industry has always been fed by overseas money.
The creation of the agricultural land ownership register is one of those seen-to-be-doing-something moves with just two points in its favour: it won’t do much real damage, and it might bring some more attention onto the realities of foreign investment.
But I was surprised to find when I checked news reports that the NFF is credited with lobbying for the register to be created. Jock, mate, any chance you could have organised to get some decent information to your members in the first place, and saved some poor Treasury bureaucrat all the trouble?
In short, the farm lobby’s lousy public policy standards persist. The sector spends an amazing amount of time on issues that aren’t really issues at all.
Polite, detached scepticism about your membership’s delusional beliefs is, I suppose, step up from sharing them. But it’s a long way from the best we might expect from organisations like the NFF. (Think of the hard truths the ACTU told its members in the 1980s.) It takes a deal of cynicism to lobby for a measure you can only justify on the basis that your members are too ill-informed to know better.
Update: Here’s one lawyer’s assessment of the likely costs of creating an agricultural land ownership register greater than you’d think).