Crafar farm buyer met the test

Last updated 05:00 21/04/2012

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OPINION: No application by a foreign investor looking to buy New Zealand land has attracted more attention than Chinese company Shanghai Pengxin's bid for the Crafar farms.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that opposition to the deal, approved yesterday, is mostly driven by the nationality of the purchaser.

Since 2005, more than 250,000 hectares of farm land has been sold, or part-sold, to overseas buyers. Most deals were waved through without a flicker of public protest, much less the outrage that has surrounded Shanghai Pengxin's interest in the 16 Crafar farms.

When Canadian film director James Cameron purchased more than 1000ha of Wairarapa land, including a 250ha dairy farm, the news was generally welcomed, even though the residency requirements he must meet mean he has to live in New Zealand for only 44 days in each of the final two years of a three-year investment period. The sale of the Crafar farms, on the other hand, has met howls of protest, despite Shanghai Pengxin having to satisfy 27 stringent requirements.

These include establishing a farm school on one of the properties, to be run by state-owned enterprise Landcorp, which will also manage the farms, and providing $5000 university scholarships to two students. It must also provide public walking access across two of the farms, protect Maori archaeological sites and undertake significant conservation requirements.

The company has also, apparently on its own initiative, undertaken to spend at least $100 million over five years promoting New Zealand dairy products in China and elsewhere in Asia, a key developing market. The increased trade that could flow from that will benefit all New Zealand dairy farmers and, with it, the wider economy.

There are, of course, downsides to the sale of productive farmland to foreign interests. Instead of the profits being spent in New Zealand's rural heartland, they are whisked overseas and lost forever.

However, New Zealand companies can hardly expect to invest in other countries if, as some would have it, overseas investment here is determined on the basis of nationality.

It is more than a bit rich for Sir Michael Fay, a member of the rival Kiwi consortium bidding for the farms, to be playing the economic nationalism card by describing the sale as a "bad day for New Zealand". Few need reminding of his record of brokering the sale of state assets to foreign corporations, something he presumably still believes was in this country's best interests.

The reality is that Shanghai Pengxin's bid for the farms, understood to be at least $200m, is around $30m higher than the price Sir Michael's group was prepared to pay. The farm's receivers had a duty to accept the highest offer, and the Overseas Investment Office, which recommends whether overseas sales of sensitive land should proceed, must apply the rules even-handedly. It has done so.

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