A simple administrative act, a routine Australian government provision has ignited a debate that overlooks its intrinsic value. A few days ago, the executive branch of the government decided that the approval threshold for foreigners purchasing land would be lowered from 240 to 15 million Australian dollars, which is equivalent to $11.7 US dollars. In addition to this value, real estate sales need to be submitted to a Foreign Investment Review Board emanating from the government. Essentially, Canberra wants to control transactions, assure that they abide by regulations, and prevent that they converge toward hostile interests. The fear is founded and justified by Australia’s countenance over the past few years. The territory is vast and sparsely populated (23 million inhabitants in an area 26 times the size of Italy), especially because of its restrictive policies adopted toward immigration. The climate is among the most arid in the world, water is a strategic resource, and agriculture is a stronghold of its productive activities. Land sales are therefore a social subject, capable of touching the nerves of public opinion. There are two primary aspects of the debate. The first is the ancestral relationship with the earth, the primary good that identifies the country, property, and family. The second is the worry regarding the use of resources, food quality, sustainable crops, and violating its relationship with nature.
The themes debated go beyond the contingent alarm. In reality, more than 90% of the land is still in Australian hands—public or private—and land acquisitions represent only an irrelevant fraction of foreign investments. Even though they doubled between 2011 and 2012, FDI in agriculture, forestry, and fishing only reached $1.3 million. The number practically disappears with respect to the $230 million invested in the mining sector, the $89 million in manufacturing, and $70 million in finance. The real motivation behind the provision needs to be sought elsewhere, where the topic of political stability prevails. Tony Abbott’s conservative government is increasingly weak. Declining in polls, it seriously risks redelivering the country to the labor party after a brief stint in government. It narrowly succeeded in passing a recent vote of confidence. The adoption of measures that strike voters’ minds before wallets is an easy solution. In fact, the limit imposed on land purchases seems to contrast a Chinese presence that is more and more cumbersome for Australia. Three countries—New Zealand, USA, and Chile—are experts in this. Therefore, the provision is in fact a limit imposed on Beijing, and for this reason it stimulates a strong debate. China has been Australia’s primary trading partner for years (both for imports and exports), but large swaths of public opinion and the government consider this situation to be harbinger of a deadly dependence. China has effectively dragged the Australian economy, but national sovereignty was compromised with the concession of natural and mineral resources. Now, the government is sounding the alarm because it knows the fears of a Chinese invasion, the corruption of food products, and the sacking of natural resources are widely perceived. Obviously, it’s impossible to establish if the worry is in line with reality; but a strategic debate results that concerns us all. Managing territories, the limits of the national state, and the compromise of rights for economic ends are strategic themes, among the many that cumbersome China has forced to negotiate.