Why do we need this data?
Researchers who have been pushing for a more transparent land use data say knowing who owns Australia is essential not only for proper management of our national resources but to understand who we are as a country.
Dr Laurence Troy, of the University of Sydney, was one of three researchers who worked on a 2012 report for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, which developed a framework for analysing national patterns of ownership change, aggregation and fragmentation of agricultural land.
“I see [ownership] as a central question in how our society operates,” Troy says. “There is a lot of wealth and power tied up in property … it is important for a whole load of transparency around the structure of property and who owns property.”
The report began as an attempt to track the fragmentation of rural land through housing developments and subdivisions into lifestyle blocks. It found that, as farmland near cities was being broken up, agricultural land in more remote areas was being consolidated into large holdings by big corporate players.
Both forces for change in rural Australia – consolidation and fragmentation – are driving up property prices.
According to the 2021 Australian Farmland Values report by Rural Bank, the median price per hectare for agricultural land in Australia increased by 12.9% in 2020 to $5,907 a hectare, the seventh consecutive year of positive growth.
The consolidation of agricultural land is not inherently bad, says a report co-author, Dr Melissa Neave. There is no guarantee that a small family-run enterprise will engage in better land management practices than a large corporation. But, she says, the separation of land ownership from land management seen by some corporate players can be “problematic”.
“The reality is that the bigger companies have started to consolidate our resources within Australia – so the issue is one of to what extent do we control, does the government control, the resources within the land itself,” she says. “Even though a company owns the land, the natural resources are generally owned by state governments. To what extent can [the state] actually ensure the health and wellbeing of that long-term management of those natural resources?”
Identifying landowners allows for better management of those natural resources, like soil and water, Neave says, and provides a basis on which to measure the impact of land management on agricultural productivity.
It could also potentially allow for landscape-wide planning, rather than viewing every property as a private fiefdom.
“Colonial ideas around what land means and what property is were really tied up with the notion of improvement, meaning that you needed to actively use the land, to improve it,” she says. “And if you weren’t seen to be improving the land – meaning fencing, clearing – you could lose it … but that means there can be a disconnect between the agenda of landowners versus the agenda of the community or of environmental values.”
A national register of land use, or at least nationally consistent data standards, would help encourage big agricultural investors, according to the National Farmers’ Federation. The NFF wants to grow farmgate output to $100bn by 2030 but reaching that target will reportedly require $8.7bn a year in capital investment.
“To do those kinds of things, you need ready access to data,” says Ash Salardini, the NFF’s general manager of trade and economics.
At the smaller end of town, where farms are still run by family units, the perceived privacy risks of such a register outweigh the potential benefits. Privacy concerns have grown after a number of high-profile trespasses on meat production businesses by animal rights activists in 2019, linked back to an unofficial register of farm ownership.
“It’s a family farm environment as well, it’s not just a business,” Salardini says. “So some of those privacy concerns need to be addressed.”