The milk of China's financial kindness
Memory lane. It always has more twists and turns than we might think. Take the latest Australian investment cherry to be tasted by China.
The biggest dairy farming enterprise in Australia, Van Diemen's Land Company, has come under the all-seeing eye of China's sovereign wealth fund.
Such literal buying up of the farm raises alarms not just for rural conservatives, but for Greens anxious about future national food security.
So let's look at the story of the VDL Co, and what it tells us about the ownership of Australian farms.
It starts with a dark Aboriginal history. Only briefly in its 187 years has the business been controlled by Australians, and never by Tasmanians. And today, Chinese investment is already key to that north-west corner of Tasmania.
VDL Co was established by British royal charter in 1825. At its annual meeting last Friday in the rural town of Smithton it was still running under the same charter – with a governor and a court of directors, rather than a chairman and a board.
It began by the usual colonial method of pastoral seizure. Shepherds and sheep simply walked onto the land, and violently dispossessed Aborigines who had lived there for tens of thousands of years.
In VDL Co's case, this culminated in the Cape Grim massacre. In the summer of 1827-28, most of the local Peerapper clan appears to have died in violent skirmishes, according to the Tasmanian historian Lyndall Ryan. A later report by the Aboriginal "Protector" George Augustus Robinson said that perhaps 30 died at once, some thrown off the cape itself.
The responsible magistrate at the time, Edward Curr, also happened to be a VDL Co manager.
When eventually forced to respond, Curr told his directors back in Britain that probably only six Aborigines died; his men were likely right to kill them, and anyway, a prosecution would have meant his workforce would have fled.
Over the next century or so, VDL Co's fortunes rose and fell closely in line with the wool price.
In the late 1960s, majority ownership was surrendered from London to a Victorian grazier, Alan Ritchie. He had strong links with Britain as Australian representative on the Imperial Economic Committee.
It stayed with his son and briefly other hands before, in 1993, New Zealand's Tasman Agriculture gained control and ramped up the dairy opportunities.
VDL Co is still with Tasman today – and its owners are the New Plymouth District Council in the North Island's Taranaki region.
The AGM heard VDL Co announce a net loss of $1.3 million on revenue of $33 million, blamed on increased operating costs and a lower milk price.
The record production of 5.76 million kilograms of milk solids kept VDL Co on track towards its ambition of becoming Australasia's leading dairy farming operation.
To this end the company is seeking a $180 million injection, and China Investment Corporation has been running its ruler over VDL Co.
But it's not the first time that modern Chinese businessmen have walked these windy hills.
For six years China Light and Power jointly with Hydro Tasmania built and ran the Roaring 40s wind power venture at Woolnorth, the main VDL Co farm.
The two decided to split up their businesses amicably last year, leaving Hydro Tasmania with these turbines. Then last February, the majority Chinese state-owned Shenhua Clean Energy paid $88.6 million for 75 per cent of the Woolnorth wind farms.
As the history of this land tells us: they come, and they go.