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Australia plays down concerns blocked land sale will deter Chinese investment

MELBOURNE, April 30 (Reuters) – Australia on Saturday played down concerns that Chinese investors will shy away from the nation’s agriculture sector after the sale of Australia’s largest private land holding to a Chinese-led consortium was blocked for the second time in six months.

Treasurer Scott Morrison on Friday blocked an A$371 million ($288 million) offer from China’s Hunan Dakang Pasture Farming Co Ltd and Shanghai CRED Real Estate Stock Co Ltd to buy S. Kidman & Co, saying the sale is not in the national interest.

Ownership of farmland is a sensitive issue in Australia amid concerns that foreign buyers are snapping up properties to cash in on a boom in Asian food demand. The government’s finding comes just weeks before the country holds federal elections.

Deputy Prime Minster Barnaby Joyce defended on Saturday the decision to block the sale, telling the Australian Broadcasting Corporation it would not affect investment in the sector.

"There are vastly stronger restrictions on every other nation on earth… this is not something peculiar to Australia," Joyce told the ABC.

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop said it was the size of the proposal that caused concern and the country still welcomed investment from China.

The decision to block the bid comes as the country seeks to boost investment in agriculture and its service sector to rebalance the economy, with the decade-long mining boom fading.

The Kidman lands are about 2.5 percent of Australia’s agricultural land and produce beef exports for Asia and the United States.

The National Farmers Federation President Brent Finlay told The Australian newspaper the decision had created uncertainty and called on the government to clarify its ‘national interest test’.

"Australia was always seen as a very safe place to invest and certainty it still is, but there is a level of uncertainty that surrounds that now," Finlay told the paper.

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