Minister accuses Kiwis of racism

MAURICE WILLIAMSON: Says foreign investment is vital, though the rules need to be tightened.
MAURICE WILLIAMSON: Says foreign investment is vital, though the rules need to be tightened.

Opposition to foreign investment is more about racism than overseas ownership, the minister charged with deciding whether a Chinese company can buy a large chunk of New Zealand dairy farms says.

Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson will be required to sign off a bid by Chinese company Natural Dairy to buy 16 North Island dairy farms. The Crafar family farms collapsed last year owing more than $200 million.

Speaking at a small-business conference at Massey University yesterday, Mr Williamson said he would not discuss the Crafar issue specifically, but the general attitude to foreign investment was usually linked to the ethnicity of the buyer.

"The number of New Zealanders who don't like the idea of overseas investment and think it's really a bad thing, really sort of frightens me, and it's really amazing that some of them have actually got Pommy accents."

Mr Williamson recounted a story of a former National Party colleague who settled in New Zealand from Scotland, then began opposing foreign ownership of farm land.

"We had a Speaker in the House once called Sir Robin Gray, on my side, who got up and said in the House [speaking in a Scottish accent]:

`Mr Speaker, I do not want to see foreigners coming in here and buying up our farmland, and I'll do anything I can to stop it', and he owned a beautiful big farm in the Clutha.

"So what's a foreigner? A lot of it's more to do with racism. If you look different, you're a foreigner but if you come from the other side of the world, from Scotland, then you're not.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said Mr Williamson's reasoning would make Prime Minister John Key a racist.

Mr Key has voiced concerns about foreign ownership and said he did not want New Zealanders to become tenants in their own country.

Mr Key was echoing the concerns of many New Zealanders and was not being racist, Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said.

"New Zealand should not be selling off our best assets to Chinese, American or Australian investors.

"It's time ministers within the Key Government dealt with the valid economic concerns of New Zealanders on this issue without accusing those opposed to New Zealand selling its assets into overseas ownership of being racist," Dr Norman said.

The Natural Dairy bid for the Crafar farms has encouraged a campaign to tighten the rules on foreign investment, in particular relating to farmland, prompting a Government review.

Last month Prime Minister John Key said the concern over the sale was not related to the fact Natural Dairy was Chinese. He was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Mr Williamson said yesterday that foreign investment was vital, though the rules needed to be tightened.

Statistics New Zealand figures show land-based foreign investment in New Zealand was $4.9 billion in 2009 compared with about $27b in manufacturing and $192b in finance and insurance.

Figures from the Overseas Investment Office show 235 consents for foreign investment in agricultural land were approved between July 1, 2005, and July 1, 2010.

Natural Dairy spokesman Bill Ralston said he could not comment on behalf of the company at short notice, but he personally agreed with most of Mr Williamson's comments.

Save the Farms has called for an immediate moratorium on sales of farmland to foreigners. Spokesman Tony Bouchier said the group was not racist, but was concerned overseas funds would target New Zealand farmland.