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  • Rikki Lambert

11 per cent of Australian water foreign-owned - but do governments care?

One politician had a crack at the accuracy and level of foreign ownership of Australian farm water, but the silence in response to the Productivity Commission's Tuesday report has been deafening from governments and media outlets alike.

The debate on the amount of foreign ownership of farm water in Australia has been the subject of as much speculation as speculation on the tradeable water market itself.

In an illustration of the murky waters of the water market, the Weekly Times were on Wednesday more focused on hitting NSW member for Murray Helen Dalton MP on allegedly trading water to a speculator she had criticised. As she pointed out on Twitter, when using a water broker the seller does not at times know who the buyer is.

The Times' and NSW Nationals MLC Wes Fang's critique is as well aimed as accusing a person selling their home of assisting a foreign spy, when the transaction occurs through a real estate agent and is managed by a government titles registry better placed to vet the matter:

Mrs Dalton spoke with FlowNews24 early on Wednesday about the Productivity Commission's report, saying she was sceptical of the total figure of 11 per cent foreign-owned water nationwide:

"We should be really concerned about foreign ownership of our water and they're saying that it's only 11 per cent. I think 11 per cent is a huge number, it equates to about 8 Sydney Harbours, and I don't even think that 11 per cent is a correct figure. I think there's a lot more water that's hidden behind different companies and also foreign governments."

The Shooters Fishers and Farmers state MP for Murray - taking in most of the NSW Murray to the Victoria/SA border - has moved in parliament several times for a register of water ownership in New South Wales to expose political connections to water trade, told FlowNews24:

"The public would be very concerned when they see the Chinese government buying up our water. Australian water will now be hawked around as an investment and I think that's very very concerning."

The Commission's draft report showed that 10.9 per cent of Australian water entitlements are owned by foreign entities, led by Canada and China with 1.8 and 1.7 per cent respectively. In gigalitre terms, this equates to 631 and 596 gigalitres respectively.

As Helen Dalton MP indicated, a 'Sydney Harbour' of water equates to roughly 500 gigalitres.

If the longer-standing Queensland figures are anything to go by, China's race up that ladder has been rapid over the last 10-15 years. The trouble is, this registry has only been tracking transactions federally for a couple of years.

Western Australia hosts the most foreign-owned water at over 22 per cent, followed by Queensland at over 17 per cent and South Australia with almost 10 per cent. WA's foreign-owned entitlements are almost exclusively used for mining or industrial purposes, whereas most other states use it for agricultural purposes.

In the latest data, South Australian foreign ownership rose more than any other jurisdiction from 30 June 2019 to 30 June 2020, followed by increases in NSW/ACT, Victoria and Tasmania. Foreign ownership levels fell slightly in Queensland and Western Australia.

The report notes that sentiment against foreign investment on farms is strongest in regional communities, and became more pronounced in 2016 than it was in 2012.

Concerningly, the draft report findings indicate the Register has no tangible use for policy development or administration.

The Commission recommended greater integration of state and territory water portals with their own, whilst acknowledging awareness 'extremely limited awareness' of the Register.

This contrasts, for instance, with the Australian Energy Market Operator dashboard that gives real-time information on Australian energy generation sources state-by-state.

AEMO dashboard screen capture, 18 August 2021

The Commission's draft findings also propose that the geographic breakdown is 'sufficiently granular', rejecting the proposition that catchment-by-catchment summaries should also be available.

The NSW Irrigators' Council had contended that publishing data at that level would enhance the understanding of the presence of foreign companies in particular water markets.

In support of this approach, the Commission cited a social media post attacking foreign-owned wine brands that resulted in alleged abusive phone calls and cancellation of orders at the wineries.


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