Foreign ownership of Australian land and water: 2019 statistics

Foreign ownership of agricultural land and water entitlements remained broadly flat in the 12 months to June 2019, according to the latest figures from the Foreign Investment Review Board.

The amount of Australian agricultural land in foreign ownership remained almost flat in 2018-19, with a decrease in total agricultural land helping to offset a fall in land owned by overseas interests.

There was a 0.9 percent reduction in land owned by foreign interests at June 30, 2019, from a year earlier, although the amount of land owned as a percentage of total land increased slightly, from 13.4 to 13.8 percent. The figures come from the latest edition of the Register of Foreign Ownership of Australian Agricultural Land published by the Foreign Investment Review Board.

Tasmania and the Northern Territory were the jurisdictions with the highest proportions of foreign ownership, with Western Australia seeing the biggest year-on-year increase in foreign land ownership at 1.1 percent.

Livestock is by far the dominant use for foreign-owned agricultural land in the country, accounting for 85 percent of all land use across the different livestock types. There was an increase in the amount of foreign-owned land used for crops in 2018-19.

The figures for land ownership by country were split into leasehold and freehold land for the first time this year, with interests from the Netherlands owning the most freehold land at 1.65 million ha. China topped the leasehold table with 8.31 million ha, pulling ahead of the UK.

Aggregating total freehold and leasehold foreign ownership interests, China and the UK hold the largest area of total Australian agricultural land (each with 2.4 per cent), followed by the Netherlands (0.7 per cent) and the US (0.6 per cent).

FIRB noted UK interests had reduced the amount of land they owned by around 1.2 million hectares in 2018-19. Another notable decrease was the US, whose investors decreased holdings by around 500,000 hectares in the year.

Water entitlements

FIRB publishes separate figures for water entitlements in its Register of Foreign Ownership of Water Entitlements.

The amount of water entitlements in foreign hands, like agricultural land, also remained broadly flat, increasing slightly from 4,035 gigaliters in 2018 to 4,113 GL in 2019. This meant that foreign-held water entitlement as a percentage of the total water entitlement on issue stood at 10.5 percent as of June 30, 2019, up from 10.4 percent a year earlier.

Western Australia and Queensland are the jurisdictions where the foreign-held water entitlement as a percentage of the total water entitlement is at its highest, although in WA 76 percent of the water is used for mining, not agriculture. In Queensland, where 19.2 percent of water entitlement is held by foreign interests, 86 percent of water entitlement is used for agriculture.

Queensland had the highest amount of foreign-held water entitlement on issue at 1,301 GL, followed by New South Wales at 1,260 GL and Western Australia at 936 GL. The remaining states all had individual totals of less than 270 GL.

FIRB splits water use into four categories for the purposes of its reporting: agriculture, mining, industry such as construction and manufacturing, and other uses such as tourism, trade and research.

Agriculture is by far the biggest consumer of foreign-owned water entitlement, accounting for 66 percent of its total use across the country. It also makes up a large majority of water use in every state and territory except for Western Australia, where mining is the dominant use.

Chinese interests remain top of water entitlement ownership by country on 756 GL, a slight increase from 732 GL in 2018.

The US is in second place with 712 GL, with a considerable gap to the UK in third place on 394 GL. Canadian interests have grown from 212 GL to 295 GL, with Canadian investors such as PSP Investments acquiring significant tranches of water entitlement in the past 12 months.

A major deal by PSP to acquire a further 89 GL of water entitlement from Singapore’s Olam International last year was not captured in the reporting period.

Agriculture is the main use for water owned by interests from China, the US, Canada, Singapore, Belgium, Hong Kong and the Netherlands. Mining is the predominant use for water owned by interests from the UK, Switzerland and Belgium, while industry is the main use of French-owned water entitlement.