The ability of Chinese Communist Party-owned companies to own the rights to water supply in Australia has been slammed as ‘disgraceful’ by Pauline Hanson.
Unibale Pty Ltd – a subsidiary of major state-owned Chinese agriculture company COFCO Corporation – has acquired 7,000 megalitres of water in the Gwydir River system in the north of New South Wales’ Murray-Darling Basin.
That is despite water supply being one of the nation’s most precious resources.
Senator Hanson told Sky News the ability of foreign owned companies to access water and set the market price was crippling farmers, and called on the government to step in.
Senator Pauline Hanson has slammed the ability of international companies to buy the rights to water in the precious Murray-Darling basin (pictured), after a Chinese Communist Party-owned subsidiary acquired access 7,000 megalitres from a river in northern New South Wales
‘We are absolutely stupid to allow any foreign ownership of our water in this country and we should go back to the old way it was – if you don’t own land, you should not have water rights to buy and sell on the market,’ the One Nation founder said.
‘This is why a lot of farmers are going under, they can’t afford the water and it’s been an absolute disgrace the government hasn’t done anything about it.
‘Water belongs to the people of this nation, not foreign interests to make a lot of money out of it.’
Foreign investors began to target the region after the easing of basin trading rules in 2014, which allowed companies to buy and sell water more easily.
Former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty, who is now Inspector General of the basin’s water resources, said many in the community were frustrated by the arrival of interloper companies to buy up the scarce resource.
‘There is a segment of the community who says why should people own water who don’t have any interest in agriculture?’ he told 7.30.
‘Equally, there’s a section of the community that says, ‘well, the government made this decision that gave us some options to trade in water and we have actually invested in that trade.”
Water is already scarce in the region which has struggled through ‘extreme drought’ for much of the past two years.
Senator Hanson said the ability of these foreign owned companies to access water and set the market price was crippling farmers, and called on the government to step in and change the law so that only local land owners can own
Foreign investors began to target the Murray-Darling basin after the easing of trading rules in 2014, allowing international companies to buy and sell water more easily (Pictured is Chinese president Xi Jinping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party)
The Murray-Darling Basin stretches across the south-eastern states and covers South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales
It is not known what Unibale plans for its water supply, but Daily Mail Australia has contacted COFCO Corporation for comment about their intentions.
Mr Keelty said while a foreign ownership register was introduced in 2017 requiring overseas companies to declare their interests, the register was not accessible to the public.
He added the sale and purchase of water commodities was not overseen to the same degree by the government as materials like gold or minerals.
‘It is a commodity and yet it doesn’t have the same governance and due diligence around it as other commodities, and that’s what’s of concern to people,’ Mr Keelty said.
McCullough Robertson law firm partner Duncan Bedford said the Chinese acquisition skirted around the Foreign Investment Review Board.
‘FIRB approval may be required for the acquisition of water assets when it forms part of a broader business acquisition. But on their own, water entitlements do not require FIRB approval,’ he said.
Adding to the frustration of farmers in the Murray-Darling region, the perceived lack of government oversight comes despite the Treasury saying it would review nearly all foreign asset purchases during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Former AFP commissioner Mick Keelty (pictured) said many in the community were frustrated non-agricultural companies were free to buy up water supplies
A general view of a parched Wilcannia weir on March 4, 2019 in north-western New South Wales
The importance of water assets was highlighted when it recently emerged that Australia could soon run out of rice because of mismanagement of the water supply during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Southern Murray, which stretches across the south-eastern states, is normally responsible for 60 per cent of the country’s grain and dairy production.
It is widely regarded as ‘Australia’s food bowl’ but with the Murray in a state of zero-water allocation for the past two years, rice and dairy farms aren’t growing produce.
‘Rice is definitely a big risk because we haven’t been using the water we’ve got to grow rice,’ Ms Slattery, a former employee of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, said.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has hit back though, saying: ‘There is no problem with our food security and it’s mischievous and misleading for vested interest groups to use COVID-19 to push their biased and incorrect positions.’
TREASURY’S EXPLANATION OF THE FOREIGN INVESTMENT REVIEW BOARD
‘The foreign investment review framework balances the need to ensure Australia remains an attractive destination for foreign investment while also ensuring individual foreign investments are not contrary to the national interest.
‘The Government also recognises the importance of transparency around foreign ownership of agricultural land and water.’
For this reason, the Government introduced public registers covering foreign investment into these asset classes.’