Coalition to scrutinise farm buy-ups

"There is room for better and more transparent analysis of foreign investment" ... Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey.

FOREIGN investment in agricultural assets, which many Australians see as ''unrestricted, unrestrained, uncontrolled'', would be subject to much greater scrutiny under a Coalition government, and workplace reform would be based on the principle of ''higher pay for better work'', says the shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey.

In an exclusive interview with the Herald, Mr Hockey identified the government's $36 billion national broadband network as the Coalition's big political target this year.

Mr Hockey also unveiled the Coalition's three-point economic plan for the year and a ''strong, positive agenda'', following a year in which the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, was criticised for being too negative.

The broadband network was by far the biggest off-budget initiative ever seen in Australian government, Mr Hockey said, referring to government programs that have not been accounted for in the federal budget. The broadband network is treated as a government asset and not as a budget item.

''I mean, it's multiples of anything that's ever been off-budget … it detracts from productivity,'' he said.

Mr Hockey vowed to increase accountability of the government's off-budget initiatives, including the broadband network, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the planned National Dental Scheme.

He said Australia's productivity slump was the second tier of the Coalition's economic policy, but he refused to be drawn on the detail of its industrial relations policy.

Workplace relations was the subject of an internal Liberal Party brawl in September when the former workplace relations minister Peter Reith urged Mr Abbott to make it a front-and-centre issue.

Mr Abbott ignored the call and ruled out a return to statutory individual contracts.

Mr Hockey revealed a review of foreign investment guidelines would be part of the Coalition's economic policy agenda.

''There is room for better and more transparent analysis of foreign investment,'' he said. ''There is a perception issue that there is unrestricted, unrestrained, uncontrolled foreign investment, particularly in agriculture. We may well flag changes to foreign investment rules, and we will have more to say about that.''

Foreign buy-up of Australian farms and food security is a hot issue for many Coalition voters. A government-commissioned report on the issue by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics is expected to be released this month.

At present, foreign ownership laws kick in only when investments exceed $230 million.

A Senate inquiry chaired by the Liberal senator Bill Heffernan is also looking into the issue.

Mr Hockey said ''some'' of the Coalition's policies would be submitted to the Parliamentary Budget Office for costing.

During the 2010 election campaign, the opposition refused to have its policies costed by Treasury, opting instead to have them assessed by a West Australian accountancy firm, WHK Horwath.

The accountants who completed the costings have since been found to have breached professional standards and were fined for misrepresenting the costings as an audit.