Australia's current government will never sell its largest cattle empire to foreigners, the treasurer said on Wednesday after blocking a takeover by a Chinese-led consortium.
Chinese-based Dakang Australia Holdings on Tuesday withdrew its application to buy an 80 percent stake in Australia's largest private landholding, S. Kidman & Co. Ltd., after Treasurer Scott Morrison last week announced a preliminary view that the sale was contrary to the national interest.
Morrison said Wednesday the main reason he opposed the 371 million Australian dollars ($284 million) sale was that the collection of cattle ranches was too big.
"As a result of the decision I took last week ... Australia's largest land holding will not be sold to foreign interests," Morrison told the National Press Club. "There's got to be a limit and it was just too big."
Kidman owns 10 cattle ranches, a bull breeding stud and a feed lot covering 101,411 square kilometers (39,155 square miles) in four states. That's an area bigger than South Korea and almost the size of the U.S. state of Virginia.
Morrison said the company founded by beef baron Sir Sidney Kidman in 1899 might be sold into foreign ownership if the government changes at elections in July.
Kidman managing director Greg Campbell said he expected the consortium, led by a subsidiary of Shanghai Pengxin Group, would return after the election with a new offer for a smaller parcel of land or with a higher proportion of Australian investor money.
Morrison had offered no guidance on how much of Kidman land the Chinese might be allowed to buy, Campbell said.
"It's highly likely they'll back with a reapplication after the election and get the populist hysteria out of the way," Campbell said.
Foreign ownership of farmland is an increasingly sensitive issue in Australia, where many fear that Chinese-owned farms could supply Australian-grow produce to Chinese parent companies at discount prices or refuse to sell to Australian buyers.
Opposition treasury spokesman Chris Bowen on Wednesday said Morrison "prefers to put populist politics over the national interest."
The opposition has not stated a position on the sale Kidman. But it accused Morrison of making his decision a "political plaything" but rushing it out before an election.