Wellard seeks review rethink

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian
Wellard’s Mauro Balzarini wants an annual threshold.
Camera IconWellard’s Mauro Balzarini wants an annual threshold.

The head of one of Australia’s biggest agribusinesses has hit out at some of the Abbott Government’s new rules on foreign investment in farmland.

Wellard chief executive Mauro Balzarini said that under the rules, his company had been forced to make five applications to the Foreign Investment Review Board in the past month.

The applications have involved the purchase of small tracts of land in WA and the Northern Territory, including one transaction worth just $6000 as Wellard added to the site of its abattoir near Kojonup.

Wellard began exporting live-stock from Australia in 1979, is registered in Australia and has its headquarters in Fremantle, but is subject to FIRB scrutiny because Mr Balzarini and other members of his family are Italian citizens.

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Mr Balzarini believes com-panies like Wellard, which has a longstanding commitment to Australian agriculture and employs hundreds of people, should not have to refer every proposed property deal to FIRB.

He said the new rules made it harder to invest and revealed he had raised the issue with Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.

“The scrutiny of who buys the land is not a bad thing provided it doesn’t create an obstacle to genuine businesses like us and many others who continue to develop, who continue to invest and to expand,” Mr Balzarini said.

“The new FIRB threshold is making our life a bit difficult because we are way, way above the $15 million threshold so now every square metre we buy is a big complication.”

Under rules introduced in March, all foreign investors require approval to acquire interests in agricultural land worth $15 million or more.

The threshold is cumulative and applies to existing investors like Wellard. It is also a barrier to foreign investors participating in farm auctions.

From today, foreign investors who own farmland must register their holdings with the Australian Taxation Office, regardless of value. Any new purchases must be registered within 30 days.

The ATO will publish the data in the first half of 2016.

Labor and the Australian Food and Grocery Council have concerns about the rules making Australia less attractive to foreign investors and acting as a barrier to growth in food processing and farming.

Wellard is urging the Government to introduce an annual investment threshold for com-panies with a proven track record in rural Australia.

Under the proposal, the companies would apply to FIRB for prior approval to buy farmland up to a certain amount each year.

Wellard has a fleet of four live- stock carriers, processes up to 2500 sheep and lambs a day at its Beaufort River meats abattoir and owns eight farms covering 35,700 hectares in WA.

It is celebrating a record-breaking 2014-15 for the com-pany in live cattle exports.

Despite its flagship carrier, the Ocean Drover, being out of action for almost six months after a fire while docked at Fremantle, Wellard exported 389,327 cattle.

Mr Balzarini said the result, which surpassed the 318,262 head exported in 2013-14, showed the quality and commitment of the Wellard team in supplying customers in Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Indonesia and the Middle East.

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