Foreign ownership of farms 'about right' - Guy

NATHAN GUY: Primary Industries Minister.
NATHAN GUY: Primary Industries Minister.

Minister of Primary Industries Nathan Guy is comfortable with the level of foreign investment in farmland as opposition grows against big tracts of land being bought by overseas owners.

Guy said New Zealanders should not lose sight they had relied heavily on foreign investment for a long time.

He said foreign ownership of land had become an election issue and the Government was confident of its position.

"We have to keep a reasoned and balanced debate through this issue and of course we will have political parties say they will do one thing on the campaign trail and maybe another when in government," said Guy at a Christchurch luncheon this week.

"We believe we have the balance about right."

Opposition to Chinese company Shanghai Pengxin signing up to buy Lochinver Station near Taupo, revealed last week, has come from Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, NZ First leader Winston Peters and Labour leader David Cunliffe.

Labour says foreign purchases of more than 5 hectares of farmland would be limited to rare exceptions showing large economic benefits, if it was elected into government.

Outside political circles, Federated Farmers president William Rolleston admitted to being "frankly uneasy" about the station being sold to Pengxin. Rolleston said the organisation supported positive overseas investment in New Zealand's farming system, but was concerned there would be little benefit to New Zealand if the Lochinver sale went through.

Pengxin owns Crafar Farms and a stake via another company in Canterbury's Synlait Farms. The sale of Lochinver, put up for tender in December last year by the Stevenson Group, is awaiting approval from the Overseas Investment Office (OIO).

This week NZ First pointed to another likely sale of a 1037ha station near Gisborne to foreign investors.

Yet there were few complaints when Robert "Mutt" Lange - a Zambian-born British record producer and the ex-husband of pop singer Shania Twain - showed overseas ownership was not all bad after putting about 53,000 hectares of South Island high-country land he owns under covenant protection.

Guy said foreign investment in New Zealand land was mainly from the United States, Australia, United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland and Canada with 3 per cent to 4 per cent of land sales made to the Chinese.

The bulk of New Zealand land was Kiwi owned with "a couple of per cent" under foreign ownership.

He said the Government had lifted the process in 2010 to make applications to the OIO more rigorous by taking into account the benefit of a land sale for New Zealand.

"Let's give some context and if you want to talk about the politics I'm happy to, but it's interesting that Labour is now out there with their position; they will change this and change that but right next door to this farm in 2007 [former finance minister] Michael Cullen and David Parker, the [Land Information] minister of the time signed off Poronui Station right next door to Lochinver and 6500ha, they have forgotten about that.

"Under the Labour government 663,000ha went under foreign owners' hands and under this government there's been about 189,000ha."

Guy was questioned at the luncheon about the vacuum of information in the OIO system which made it difficult to find out if overseas applicants had followed through with land development as listed in their application. The information could show the benefits of wider access to the public and the protection of wetlands by outside money.

Guy said he would get officials to look into providing more information on OIO decisions and post-application results.

"I don't know if it's been looked at, but I will follow that up.

"I think you make a very valid point that the conditions are placed on the overseas investor to go through the OIO process ...   It would be really good for the public to know had they met those."

The Press