Coalition harmony drowning in a Cubbie Station dam
Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey today publicly rebuked his Nationals front-bench colleague Barnaby Joyce for opposing the sale of Cubbie Station to Chinese interests.
Mr Hockey, a Liberal, said Senator Joyce wasn’t speaking for the Coalition, and not even representing the policy of his own party. He was just “freelancing”.
Barnaby Joyce, who says he represents the wisdom of the Dirranbandi pub, has a record of saying things which don’t always fit neatly with the policy guidelines set by his urban Coalition partners. It could be patience with his self-promotion and positioning is running short.
But today’s friction also is a critical moment in the national debate over whether opening Australia up for foreign investment is selling the farm or ensuring an economic future.
It is a critical debate even though currently just one per cent of Australia’s agricultural land is foreign owned, and a micro fraction of that land would be in Chinese hands.
It’s understood Joe Hockey’s stinging comments on Sky News this morning amounted to a warning shot from the Coalition leadership, particularly the Liberal economic ministers.
It’s not just a matter of personality differences, although there is an element of that.
The danger for the Opposition is the prospect of the Coalition being dragged into an internal brawl over the important issue of foreign investment policy, with the leadership wanting to present Australia as a suitable place for overseas money while a populist group wants arbitrary restrictions.
And it’s one of the few occasions in which the Opposition leadership is prepared to defy the alarmist shrieks of prominent opinion makers on talkback radio.
Nationals Leader Warren Truss has stumbled along the alarmist path but Joe Hockey’s comments today were clearly aimed at Senator Joyce, who has greater electoral clout than his party chief.
Mr Hockey rejected comments by the Cubbie campaigners: “No, some people are freelancing. They do not speak for the Coalition. They don’t even speak for the National Party or the Liberal Party.”
And he pointedly said that shadow ministers, unlike back bench MPs, had a responsibility not to freelance.
The sale of Cubbie Station has become a focus of agitation because it is a well-known piece of outback real estate, has the potential to hold and dictate the release of a lot of water, and the buyers are Chinese at a time where there are exaggerated mutterings that Beijing is buying up the world.
It’s not just the Nationals who have joined these mutterings. Prominent Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan also is worried about Chinese investment generally.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has not joined the Cubbie crowd, and Senator Joyce Monday night effectively was attacking him when he attacked Treasurer Wayne Swan on ABC TV.
“If we don’t think the ownership of prime agricultural land is in our nation’s interest, if we don’t think that an organisation that produces up to 13 per cent of our nation’s cotton crop is in our national interest, Mr Swan, what on Earth is in our national interest?” said Senator Joyce.
Which led to Joe Hockey’s barbed reply today.
In June the Government proposed a foreign ownership register and the Opposition has come up with a similar proposal in a discussion paper, having not touched the idea during the 11 years of the Howard government.
The Gillard government has introduced a survey system with the Bureau of Statistics, every two or three years, to reinforce the information on the register.
However, so far there is no breakdown of foreign ownership of agricultural land by country. It’s not known, for example, how much farming and pastoral land is owned by the Chinese, nor by the Americans, the British or the New Zealanders.
In general terms, 99 per cent of agricultural businesses here are entirely Australian owned. Foreign ownership of land has only risen by 0.1 per cent in 30 years - from 5.9 per cent to 6.0 per cent.
Senator Joyce has yet to establish why is has been damaging to the national interest.
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