Foreign ownership debate heats up
Labour to get tough
New Zealand farmland has become a political hot potato as parties try to out-do each other in their opposition to foreign ownership.
The bidding war was sparked by the potential purchase of the Crafar Farms by Natural Dairy of Hong Kong and the creation of a lobby group by several businessman opposed to such sales.
The issue could play out in the South Waikato in the future with rumours at the start of the year that foreign investors had looked at the Carter Holt Harvey dairy conversion farms.
Labour Agriculture spokesperson Damien O’Connor said the policy his party announced last week would make it easier for successful and younger New Zealanders to buy farms.
‘‘This policy is a clear statement that Labour believes we must own and control our future in Agriculture,’’ he said.
‘‘ The growing pressure from cheap foreign capital has already resulted in Kiwi land transferring to overseas interests.
‘‘ While Labour always welcomed appropriate foreign investment to grow our economy, the takeover of monopoly infrastructure and the purchase of productive land does not ensure any greater return to Kiwis over the long-term.
‘‘ Pricing land on an international market makes it more difficult for NZ farmers to afford the purchase price of land and run a viable farming operation.’’
The Labour policy would mean foreign buyers would have to prove their investment would benefit the New Zealand economy.
The policy goes further than National’s announcement late last month that it would tighten foreign investment rules.
Back then Finance Minister Bill English said: ‘‘It’s important that we welcome beneficial foreign investment and recognise the positive contribution it makes to New Zealand through increased jobs, capital and access to export markets.
‘‘At the same time, the Government recognises there are genuine public concerns about aspects of certain types of overseas investment.’’
Under National’s changes the Government would have extra flexibility to consider a wider range of issues including largescale ownership of farmland when assessing overseas investment applications for sensitive land.
‘‘In recent months, ministers have carefully reviewed the current framework for considering overseas investment applications – particularly in light of issues with respect to farmland ownership,’’ Mr English said.
‘‘ Overall, the measures ... strike an appropriate balance. They increase ministerial flexibility to consider a wide range of issues when assessing overseas investments in sensitive land, while at the same time they provide extra clarity and certainty for potential investors and the Overseas Investment Office.’’
ACT MP Heather Roy said there were several reasons why foreign investment was needed for New Zealand’s economic growth and questioned the two parties’ motives. ‘‘Both parties are driven by political polling showing that the sale of land to foreigners is very unpopular.
‘‘Polling shows that 75 per cent of New Zealanders oppose the sale of farms to non-residents, the political argument for opposing such sales is very powerful.
‘‘The two big old parties are, in fact, falling over themselves to be the strictest on the restriction of New Zealand assets to foreigners. However it remains very foolish to stop foreign investment for a number of reasons.’’
MEASURED APPROACH: Bill English thinks the Government has found the right balance in its policy towards foreign ownership of farms.
GOING FURTHER: Damien O’Connor said Labour will take the rules on land ownership further than National.