Saturday 13 August 2011

Tony Abbott taps into gas, rural land debates

TONY Abbott says landholders should be able to keep gas companies off their properties and wants tougher rules governing foreign investment in prime agricultural land.

Tapping into the hottest issues in rural Australia, the Opposition Leader today backed the concerns of frustrated landholders over resources companies seeking to extract coal seam gas.

“If you don't want something to happen on your land, you ought to have a right to say no,” Mr Abbott told 2GB's Alan Jones.

But while backing property holders' rights, Mr Abbott acknowledged the government should be allowed to access private land in some circumstances if it paid compensation.

Amid growing interest in Australian farmland from overseas buyers, Mr Abbott also called for a rethink of the threshold at which the Foreign Investment Review Board must approve agricultural land acquisitions.

The Foreign Investment Review Board is currently required to approve all purchases of agricultural land by foreign governments and any foreign purchase over $231 million.

“I think one of the things that we do need to look at is, just what sort of criteria is the Foreign Investment Review Board looking at?” Mr Abbott said.

“Because I think it is a bit of a black box. And we need to understand what's inside the black box. What are the criteria that the board uses?”

The foreign ownership debate was ignited recently by several high-profile land purchases, including by Chinese-government owned corporations.

Last year the government announced that it had commissioned the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Rural Industries Research Development Corporation, along with ABARE-BRS, to map out the extent of foreign ownership of Australian agricultural land.

Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten has repeatedly said the government will wait to receive the findings of the survey, expected in October, to see whether any policy response is required.

There are also major concerns in rural areas over the ability of gas companies to tap coal seam gas on private land, even if landholders object.

Queensland Gas managing director Catherine Tanna recently backed the company's right to extract gas on private land, saying the nation's property rights system said hydrocarbons were owned by the crown.

Greens Leader Bob Brown said Mr Abbott was taking up Greens policy in backing the rights of property owners over mining and gas companies.

"If Tony has said that farmers ought to have a prior right to look after their land as against the invasion by coal seam gas explorers and tappers, he's adopting Greens policies," Senator Brown said.

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