Image for Brown takes it to the miners

SYDNEY—As worries grow that the expansion of open-cut coal mining is damaging Australia’s agriculture base, opposition and Greens lawmakers said Wednesday they want stricter curbs on foreign investment in the farming sector.

Both the environmentalist Greens party and center-right Liberal Party want to lower the threshold on investments that triggers scrutiny by the foreign investment watchdog, so proposals to buy farms can be vetoed. That threshold is now 231 million Australian dollars (US$244.7 million).

.“We are having another look at the threshold for these kinds of purchases, as we do have to ensure what’s done is in Australia’s national interest,” Liberals leader Tony Abbott told reporters.

A push for change by both parties could pressure the ruling minority Labor government, which partly depends on the Greens to stay in office, to meet some of the demands. A spokesman for Treasurer Wayne Swan, who ultimately oversees foreign investment, wasn’t immediately available to comment.

Foreign buying of farmland in Australia makes up a small proportion of overall inward capital, but lawmakers are concerned some of the country’s best pastoral regions are being churned up by the mining sector.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, 2010, 17 proposals worth A$2.3 billion were approved in the agriculture sector, out of total foreign investment of A$140 billion. This compared with 12 proposals the year earlier valued at A$2.8 billion. The last review of foreign-investment thresholds was in 2009, which set the bar at A$231 million, while rules on foreign buying of residential property were tweaked in 2010.

Greens party Leader Bob Brown said Wednesday he also wants a registration for the foreign ownership of land, and tighter restrictions on the approval of new mines.

Mr. Brown singled out investment in the coal-rich Liverpool pastoral plains area of northern New South Wales, which he said is a direct threat to agriculture.

“There are small farms—some four, five, six, seven generations in ownership—being put out of business for a 20- or 30-year coal mining venture which is going to put the future of farming…much more problematic and hard,” Mr. Brown said in response to questions after a speech at the National Press Club.

He also ramped up his rhetoric on the proposed minerals resource rent tax, urging the government to maximize value from the mining boom by widening its scope beyond coal and iron ore to other metals and minerals. He also wants a debate on the pace of extraction of iron ore.

“Isn’t it a worry for all of us that the massive iron ore repository we have in this nation may be gone in 25 years?” he said.

The chief mining lobby group, the Minerals Council of Australia, said the Greens policy was “xenophobic” and warned the party against interfering in an industry it says is generating benefits across the country.

The proposed minerals tax continues to be opposed by a number of mining companies, although it has the support of some large ones, including BHP Billiton Ltd. and Rio Tinto PLC, which together with major coal producer Xstrata PLC were consulted on the draft version of the plans. The three companies had been part of a public campaign against an earlier proposal to set the tax rate at 40%, which played a big part in the ousting of former prime minister Kevin Rudd.

Both the environmentalist Greens party and center-right Liberal Party want to lower the threshold on investments that triggers scrutiny by the foreign investment watchdog, so proposals to buy farms can be vetoed. That threshold is now 231 million Australian dollars (US$244.7 million).

“We are having another look at the threshold for these kinds of purchases, as we do have to ensure what’s done is in Australia’s national interest,” Liberals leader Tony Abbott told reporters.

A push for change by both parties could pressure the ruling minority Labor government, which partly depends on the Greens to stay in office, to meet some of the demands. A spokesman for Treasurer Wayne Swan, who ultimately oversees foreign investment, wasn’t immediately available to comment.

Foreign buying of farmland in Australia makes up a small proportion of overall inward capital, but lawmakers are concerned some of the country’s best pastoral regions are being churned up by the mining sector.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, 2010, 17 proposals worth A$2.3 billion were approved in the agriculture sector, out of total foreign investment of A$140 billion. This compared with 12 proposals the year earlier valued at A$2.8 billion. The last review of foreign-investment thresholds was in 2009, which set the bar at A$231 million, while rules on foreign buying of residential property were tweaked in 2010.

Greens party Leader Bob Brown said Wednesday he also wants a registration for the foreign ownership of land, and tighter restrictions on the approval of new mines.

Mr. Brown singled out investment in the coal-rich Liverpool pastoral plains area of northern New South Wales, which he said is a direct threat to agriculture.

“There are small farms—some four, five, six, seven generations in ownership—being put out of business for a 20- or 30-year coal mining venture which is going to put the future of farming…much more problematic and hard,” Mr. Brown said in response to questions after a speech at the National Press Club.

He also ramped up his rhetoric on the proposed minerals resource rent tax, urging the government to maximize value from the mining boom by widening its scope beyond coal and iron ore to other metals and minerals. He also wants a debate on the pace of extraction of iron ore.

“Isn’t it a worry for all of us that the massive iron ore repository we have in this nation may be gone in 25 years?” he said.

The chief mining lobby group, the Minerals Council of Australia, said the Greens policy was “xenophobic” and warned the party against interfering in an industry it says is generating benefits across the country.

The proposed minerals tax continues to be opposed by a number of mining companies, although it has the support of some large ones, including BHP Billiton Ltd. and Rio Tinto PLC, which together with major coal producer Xstrata PLC were consulted on the draft version of the plans. The three companies had been part of a public campaign against an earlier proposal to set the tax rate at 40%, which played a big part in the ousting of former prime minister Kevin Rudd.

Wall St Journal HERE

Earlier on Tasmanian Times: Greens launch attack on foreign owned miners