Foreign sales divide leaders

Andrew Probyn and Shane WrightThe West Australian

Kevin Rudd has attempted to break Tony Abbott's stranglehold on the election campaign, using last night's debate to reveal a more populist, interventionist position on foreign investment and the Coles-Woolworths duopoly.

In a tightly fought debate that was less combative than last week's, the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader adopted contrasting positions on rural land ownership.

Whereas Mr Abbott said selling land to a foreigner may be in Australia's national interests if it saw millions of dollars developing it, Mr Rudd said he was not as "free market".

Mr Rudd said the best models for undeveloped agricultural land were joint ventures or co-operatives where the farmer kept equity in the land but accepted foreign investment.

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"I am a bit nervous, a bit anxious frankly about simply an open slather on this," Mr Rudd said during the debate at Sydney's Rooty Hill RSL.

"When it comes to rural land, but land more generally, we perhaps need to adopt a more cautious approach."

Mr Abbott said: "It's important we maintain control of our own country but the one thing that no-one can take away is our land . . . they buy our land.

"But they can't take the land away."

Mr Abbott said the coalition would lower the threshold for Foreign Investment Review Board scrutiny of foreign land acquisitions to $15 million, down from $200 million, and publish a register of foreign land and agribusiness holdings.

Asked by an audience member what they would do to protect farmers from imports, Mr Abbott said he would toughen anti-dumping rules to stop cheap foreign product flooding the domestic market.

The PM said he was concerned about the Coles and Woolworths supermarket duopoly crushing competition in the fruit and vegetable sector.

"They are saying they're getting squeezed and more squeezed by Coles and Woolies," he said.

"What we've got to look at if we are returned by the Australian people is how we provide better guarantees for proper competitive conduct out there so that the man and woman on the land is not actually having to carry the can for everything."

Mr Rudd had a difficult start to the debate, with the first two questions dealing with the destabilisation of his predecessor Julia Gillard and his multibillion-dollar spending during the global financial crisis.

"I take your scepticism about broader economic management, your points are worthy of debate, I'm just explaining why we did what we did, because we didn't want the whole show to go into recession and see small businesses collapse," he said.

Mr Abbott appeared to change the coalition's policy towards Medicare Locals, which co-ordinate primary health services such as GP after-hours clinics.

He was unequivocal: "We are not shutting any Medicare Locals."

Snap polls on the result of the debate largely gave it to Mr Rudd.

A Channel 10 poll showed 56 per cent thought Mr Rudd won compared with 23 per cent for Mr Abbott. Channel Nine's worm gave it to the PM 57-43.

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