Divisions within the government over foreign ownership of farmland appear to be deepening, with Labor accusing the coalition of speaking with "two heads" about Chinese investment.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott hopes to finalise a free-trade agreement with China within 12 months, but the government's plan to increase scrutiny of foreign agricultural land purchases could prove a sticking point.
The government plans to reduce the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) national interest test from $248 million to $15 million for proposed agricultural purchases, but China wants it increased to $1 billion.
The Nationals have been vocal critics of the wholesale buyout of farms by China, despite Treasurer Joe Hockey hinting the Asian powerhouse could be exempt from the new FIRB terms if an FTA is signed.
Nationals senator John Williams says he wants the majority of farmland to remain in Australian hands and he claims regional communities and many colleagues share his concerns.
"The people out here vehemently oppose the mass sell off of our farms overseas and I agree with them," he told Sky News on Tuesday.
He wants an FTA signed with China, but argues the "open slather" land buyouts don't offer the same economic benefits as direct investment which grows regional jobs and keeps profits at home.
"I don't think they should be allowed to simply come and buy our land willy nilly as much as they want," he said.
Parliamentary secretary Simon Birmingham said his coalition colleague was expressing a concern shared by many, but he didn't believe those views would interfere with ongoing FTA negotiations.
Labor frontbencher Brendan O'Connor said it would be very interesting to see how the government tries to reconcile its differences while meeting its 12-month deadline for signing the FTA."You can't have the government talking with two heads," he told Sky News.