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  • China's President Xi Jinping and Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott address the Australia China state and provincial leaders forum in Sydney, November 19, 2014. REUTERS/Jason Reed (AUSTRALIA) (REUTERS POOL)Source: REUTERS POOL
Foreign investment, from countries like China often plays a key role in boosting various sectors of the economy such as mining and agriculture. But a 2014 Lowy Institute poll shows over half of Australians believe the government is allowing too much investment from China. Is Chinese investment in Australia hurting rather than helping?
Amy Chien-Yu Wang / SBS Radio

21 Sep 2015 - 3:38 PM  UPDATED 23 Sep 2015 - 1:54 PM


Since European settlement, foreign investment has been an integral part of the Australian economy.

Foreign investment, from countries like China often plays a key role in boosting various sectors of the economy such as mining and agriculture.

But a 2014 Lowy Institute poll shows over half of Australians believe the government is allowing too much investment from China.
A recent letterbox campaign in Sydney also blamed Chinese investors for rising house prices.

Is Chinese investment in Australia hurting rather than helping? Amy Chien-Yu Wang investigates.

Robert Cochrane is a fourth generation farmer based at New South Wales' Kangaroo Valley and has worked in dairy farming all his life.
He's concerned about an increase of local farmers selling off their agricultural land to Chinese investors.

"Look, we don't mind the Chinese coming here but we don't want them buying up our land. We would prefer to produce the product they wanting and sell it for a fair price."

He says dairy farmers are doing it tough with major supermarkets keeping milk prices low.

In order to survive, some end up selling their farms to overseas investors.

"It's very hard to say no under those circumstances but only time will tell if China becomes substantial enough in Australia in the production of dairy products. It will have a detrimental effect on the rest of the dairying community."

Dr. Leon Berkelmans is director of the International Economy Program at the Lowy Institute.

He believes foreign investment in farming doesn't threaten Australia's national interest.

"I don't think this is a terribly big problem either. The extent of foreign investment in agricultural land is pretty small, it's not terribly large. If we look at the amount of investment that goes into agriculture as opposed to the amount of foreign investment that goes to everything else, it's something very small it's in the order of one or two per cent, it's not very large."

He's referring to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics survey which found over 98 per cent of farm businesses are fully Australian owned.
Overseas investment is around ten per cent of total farmland - meaning Australians own almost 90 per cent of the country's agricultural land.
The Foreign Investment Review Board has also tightened its policies.

The Board will now examine farm purchases worth $15 million dollars or more, that's down from the previous $248 million level.

Dr. Berkelmans says foreign investment is extremely important to the Australian economy especially at a time when the country is running a deficit.
"So we need people to come invest in Australia. That investment can take a couple of forms. It can take portfolio investment where people buy things like shares or they actually lend money to us or it can take the form of direct investment where people are purchasing actual businesses or building factories or purchasing mines and things like that."

Aside from China, which countries are putting their money into Australia?

Australia's top investors are the US, then the UK, Japan and the Netherlands.
Singapore and China both rank fifth, each owning four per cent of investment stock.
Dr. Berkelmans says the United States is still our largest investor, owning twenty-four per cent.
"So the United States who continues to be a very important source of funds. China has been increasing its weight. So they don't have a terribly large stock of foreign investment in Australia but the flow into Australia is increasing its pace. I think its something like now 10 or 15 per cent of investment in Australia comes from the Chinese."

Overall Chinese investment is actually declining.

A KPMG and University of Sydney 2015 study shows Chinese investment in Australia dropped by over nine per cent during 2014 because of decreased demand in mining and energy resources.

The mining sector received 11 per cent of Chinese investment, while agribusiness just one per cent.
Nearly half of Chinese money went into the commercial real estate sector, totaling $4.37 billion dollars.
The Urban Development Institute of Australia's National President Cameron Shephard says Chinese money is a welcome boost to the sector.

"The increase of supply of housing which foreign investment can provide and its been shown that foreign investment in the development of new housing in Australia particularly at the lower and mid price points is extremely important. So foreign investment in this country has been seen and we know is increasing supply of housing which is in critical shortage as we all know."

House prices continue to rise across Australia.

The CoreLogic RP Data Hedonic Home Value Index shows house prices have increased by almost eight per cent nationally and over 12 per cent in Sydney over the past year.
Recently, thousands of leaflets titled "Stop the Chinese invasion" were distributed by the NSW Party for Freedom, who blamed Chinese investors for rising house prices.

NSW Minister for Multiculturalism Mr. John Ajaka said the leaflets were vile and disgraceful.

The Urban Development Institute's Cameron Shephard says targeting Chinese investors is an overreaction.
"There is obviously an increase in overseas and particularly Chinese investment in this country like there is in other parts of the world. I don't think we should be overly concerned at this point that overseas or Chinese particularly investment is distorting our market or taking away opportunities from local players I think that while it's increasing it's still only a small proportion of the total investment in this country."

The foreign investment framework directs overseas investment into the generation of new housing supply.
The Australian government prohibits overseas buyers from purchasing existing properties while temporary residents are allowed to buy one home to live in during their time in Australia but must sell the property when their visa expires.

A recent Federal parliamentary enquiry found Chinese contribution to residential real estate is about two per cent of the overall market, worth $250 billion dollars in 2013.
It concludes that the low level of Chinese investment does not warrant community concerns over housing affordability.
Cameron Shephard says we need a focus shift.

"I think we should be focusing on how we increase the supply of new housing to the market in general rather than trying to limit the number of foreign buyers into our market. If there was a significant increase in dwelling supply in the country then the issue of how much foreign investment is taking up demand wouldn't be such an issue. So I think the focus should be more on increasing supply rather than limiting overseas investors."

The Foreign Investment Review Board is proposing to charge foreign investors an administration fee for all applications.

The fee will fund screening, compliance, enforcement and data collections activities.

The Urban Development Institute of Australia fears if the price is set too high investors could end up buying in other countries.

Cameron Shephard says new charges could jeopardise foreign investment.
"We agree with the fact that the enforcement of the foreign investment rules in this country should be strengthened, however we have an issue with the imposition of new charges which we believe will serve to drive investment away from Australian property markets and move foreign investment into other markets around the world which we believe will seek to weaken our economy particularly at a time when the mining boom is coming off and that we should be relying more on housing investment to increase economic growth and job creation and also housing supply."

Data from the Foreign Investment Review Board shows Chinese investors were the biggest source of approved investment between 2013 to 2014 with $27 billion dollars worth of approved projects.

However, Dr. Leon Berkelmans says the actual figures could be much lower.
"But that's just approvals, that's not taking into consideration a couple of things. First of all, not all approvals turn into a sale so people do get approved but the transaction doesn't actually occur. But the other thing it doesn't take into account is foreign investors, those who've previously bought homes, they actually sell as well, they are buyers and they are sellers. So even though we might see a lot of people coming in but they maybe people also exiting. But I think the extent of which the reports are that people are coming in I think that that is a bit overstated."

Dr. Leon Berkelmans says it will be a long time before China overtakes the United States as our largest investor.
"Australia needs foreign investment. We run a current account deficit and we are experienced with handling foreign investment. We've been doing this ever since we started trading. This is something that we need, we're experienced with handling it and I don't hold many grave concerns.