[SYDNEY] Contrary to perceptions, British investors own far more agricultural land in Australia than Chinese nationals, an inaugural foreign land register showed Wednesday as the government warned against the rise of protectionist sentiment.
The sale of valuable farmland to foreigners, particularly through Australia's biggest trading partner China, has been a sensitive issue in recent years.
Earlier this year, Australia knocked back the sale of the country's biggest private landowner, cattle firm S Kidman and Co, to a Chinese-led consortium citing national interest with part of the holding overlapping a military testing range.
It followed warnings from politicians with rural constituencies against selling farming land to overseas interests amid worries about the nation's food security.
In a bid to soothe concerns, the government last year tightened scrutiny on overseas investment in agricultural land and vowed to be more transparent about who owns what.
Its first public report on the issue showed 13.6 per cent of all Australian agricultural land, or 52.1 million hectares (129 million acres), is in foreign hands, with the preferred method of investment through leasehold.
Of that, more than half is held by British investors, followed by those from the United States, the Netherlands and Singapore.
China only owns 0.38 per cent, despite growing anxiety about Chinese ownership, sparked by the sale last year of Australia's largest dairy farming business - Van Diemen's Land Company - to a Chinese buyer.
According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, China would have ranked second if it had been approved to take control of the 10 million hectare Kidman cattle empire.
The register showed that foreign ownership is growing, according to Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.
He said previous estimates by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found 12.4 per cent of land was foreign owned in June 2013, which was up on a Dec 2010 survey estimate of 11.3 per cent.
"This common perception that the level of foreign ownership has been increasing seems confirmed," he said, adding that the land register would provide more accurate data in the years ahead.
Treasurer Scott Morrison said foreign investment was integral to Australia's economy, contributing to growth and creating jobs, and warned against protectionism.
"With more than A$3 trillion (S$3.1 trillion) worth of foreign investment in Australia today, we cannot afford to risk our economic future by engaging in protectionism," he said.
But he acknowledged that "the community must have confidence that this investment is in the national interest".