Presumably hoping to quell public concerns about land sales to foreigners, after the announcement of the latest approval of Crafar farm sales to Chinese interests, Prime Minister John Key came up with a figure to downplay the issue. He said less than 1 per cent of New Zealand farmland was foreign owned.
The Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa has harried successive governments for decades on foreign investment policy. Its politicking has been underpinned by the regular collection and analysis of all relevant official statistics and its secretary-organiser, Murray Horton, sensed Mr Key's figure was nonsense. He asked for it to be explained. The reply came from Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson, who said "about 2 per cent of farmland has been sold to overseas buyers" in the past decade. While this remained low, it nevertheless doubled his boss's figure.
More troubling was his caveat: "But we don't know how much of this land has subsequently been sold back to New Zealanders". This makes a mockery of the minister's title. Without the missing statistics, he can't claim to be informed about how much land is foreign owned or controlled. Mr Williamson was involved in approving the Overseas Investment Office's consent to Milk New Zealand Holding Ltd to acquire the 16 Crafar farms. He emphasised that New Zealand had "a transparent set of laws and regulations around overseas investment". Only a few racists or fanatics would welcome a ministerial failure to ensure the rules are applied evenly to all applications, regardless of where they are from. The more important issue is whether the rules are too loose, especially with regard to farmland. But any discussion of this is ill-served by statistical shortcomings. An analysis of Overseas Investment Office decisions by Council of Trade Unions economist Bill Rosenberg suggests a conservative 1.26 million hectares are in foreign ownership or control, including forestry. This is 8.7 per cent of land that can move from agriculture to forestry and back again. But maybe it is 10 per cent. The level at which foreign ownership becomes socially or economically problematic, demanding a review of the rules, is open to argument. The argument will be all the better for being an informed one.
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