- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2015

Just in time for Black Friday, you can buy that special someone on your list the largest privately owned package of real estate properties on the planet.

Only one catch, just added by the seller: Only Aussies need apply.

An Australian cattle dynasty’s collection of ranches — which combined constitutes a land mass larger than Iceland — is on the market, but not to Chinese and other foreign interests avidly eyeing the land. The historic auction of the properties amassed by Sidney Kidman and his descendants over more than a century has sparked a debate in Canberra over national security and just how much of Australia it is safe to give over to foreign owners.

The numbers are staggering, even for a continent-size nation used to big distances and outsize ambitions. All told the 10 ranches, stud farm and feed lot owned by the family-owned S. Kidman & Co. Ltd. cover nearly 40 million square miles — nearly the size of the state of Virginia, analysts note — straddling the four separate Australian states of Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and Northern Territory.

The biggest jewel in the package deal is the world’s single largest privately owned cattle ranch, the Anna Creek Station, which covers more than 9,000 square miles and is by itself larger than such countries as Israel, Slovenia and El Salvador. One complication for officials weighing the upcoming auction: half of the Anna Creek Station actually is located inside the Australian military’s main missile-testing range.

With Chinese and Hong Kong interests reportedly readying bids, officials from Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board ruled this month that non-Australian buyers would not be welcome.

“Given the size and significance of the total portfolio of Kidman properties, along with the national security issues around access to the [testing range], I have determined that it would be contrary to Australia’s national interest for a foreign person to acquire S. Kidman and Co. in its current form,” Treasurer Scott Morrison, the federal government minister responsible for expenditures and revenues, said in a statement.

But for Australians, and perhaps those willing to apply for citizenship, a once-in-a-lifetime real estate play is still on the table.

The story involves a broke teenage runaway — whose legendary rise to success eventually resulted in a land holding totaling about 1.3 percent of the Australian continent — a cattle ranch in the Outback and a political debate about the right amount of foreign interest in Australia’s historically open and trade-oriented economy.

Sir Sidney Kidman was born in 1857 in Adelaide and ran away from home at age 13, with a capital base of a one-eyed horse he bought himself. The youngster worked as a roustabout, or an unskilled laborer, and a bullock-driver. As he gained experience he became a drover, steering livestock across the Outback’s long expanses by horseback and surviving brutally long days. His entrepreneurial knack began to show when he went into business for himself, using the money earned from being a stockman to buy a bullock team.

Benefiting from a copper boom in the 1870s, he opened a successful butcher shop supplying hungry customers in the mining boom towns. His business empire grew steadily as he used his earnings and a family inheritance to begin buying and selling cattle.

He bought his first station, or cattle ranch, before he turned 30. He had a plan to buy a chain of stations where he could avoid droughts by moving cattle to different stations as needed. At the height of the family’s holdings, the company claimed title to an estimated 3 percent of the Australian land mass, with over 150,000 head of cattle.

Scrub land and sand dunes

Not all of the land represents prime real estate.

Anna Creek Station, for example, is located in South Australia, and much of its 6 million acres of land sprawls over scrub and sand dunes. Typical of cattle stations, Anna Creek has a homestead, the hub of ranch life. Mail is delivered only twice a week. Tenants have access to television and the Internet but are mostly isolated from the rest of civilization. In the past drovers rode horses to steer cattle, but now the ranch employs helicopters to locate cattle and motorbikes to control the herds.

But its proximity to the Defense Department’s Woomera Prohibited Area rocket firing range added a new level of complexity to the family’s hopes to cash in.

The Australian Financial Review reported that the two top bidders in the original auction, edging out American and European competition, were Chinese companies Genius Link Action Management (GLAM), an investment company, and Shanghai Pengxin, a private conglomerate. Foreign applicants interested in the S. Kidman and Co. property had to pass through the Foreign Investment Review Board.

GLAM was widely seen as the front-runner until the Australian federal government earlier this month banned the sale to Chinese interests — and any other foreign investor.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull supported the treasurer’s decision to limit the property to domestic bidders.

The Woomera Prohibited Area “is called a prohibited area for a reason,” Mr. Turnbull told reporters at the recent Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. “It is actively used for weapons testing and trials, and it’s an area that obviously raises national security issues,” Mr. Turnbull said while attending the summit in Manila.

The decision came down despite the fact that China is now the biggest investor in Australia in the agriculture sector. GLAM already owns other Australian agribusinesses, including Australia’s largest table olive farm, Treetops Plantation, and Australia’s second-biggest oilseed crushing and refining plant, Riverina Oils & Bio Energy.

“We understand and respect the position of the Australian government,” said GLAM Chairman Joel Chang, the Australian Financial Review reported. “We don’t see this as unresolvable. We still see a lot of opportunities, and we don’t think this is the end of the world.”

S. Kidman and Co.’s managing director, Greg Campbell, said selling the ranches individually was an option — but probably the last one.

“That was always an option, [but] it’s not the best return option to investors. The Kidman family have been patient investors in the Australian cattle industry for 116 years, and what we find this morning is that they’re not at liberty to accept the best price for their business,” Mr. Campbell said, according to the Australian Broadcast Corporation.

“I would think breaking up the business and selling off the cattle properties was the very last recourse.”

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