The long-serving director of the Overseas Investment Office, Annliese McClure, has effectively been sidelined by the appointment of a "new short-term deputy chief executive" at Land Information New Zealand, whose job is "to focus on the Overseas Investment Office".
The announcement of the appointment of Lesley Haines, a former deputy chief executive of both the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and, prior to its amalgamation with MBIE, the Department of Labour, was made without fanfare late last week by the soon-departing chief executive of Land Information New Zealand, Peter Mersi.
The OIO is an autonomous operational unit of LINZ, with statutory responsibility for investigating, approving and making recommendations to Ministers on foreign investment proposals, including so-called "sensitive" investments involving strategically significant New Zealand land and other assets.
It routinely faces criticism over the length of time it takes to reach conclusions on foreign investment proposals. Overseas investors are increasingly questioning the government's welcome for foreign direct investment after last year's rejection of the proposal by Chinese multi-national Shanghai Pengxin to purchase Lochinver Station, a large central North Island property, from Stevensons Group.
The OIO recommended the purchase after a protracted investigation, but it was turned down by Associate Finance Minister Paula Bennett and LINZ Minister Louise Upston.
The office has yet to make a recommendation to Ministers on the joint venture proposal that would see Chinese investor Shanghai Maling gain effective control of the country's largest meat processing firm, Silver Fern Farms.
A decision is required on the proposal by June 30, although the JHV partners have signalled they could extend their deadline. Earlier this month, the OIO said it had stopped work on the application while it sought more information on the bid, saying it was "not in a position to indicate when the application will be sent to the relevant ministers for a decision."
Spokespeople for both LINZ and Upston's office today confirmed that McClure, whose job title is manager of the OIO, remained at the office but were not immediately able to comment on her current job title or the implications for her of having a new short-term deputy CEO appointed above her, despite a tightly circulated press statement on the decision being issued on June 9.
Labour's land information spokesman, David Cunliffe, said the decision was "a welcome step that underlines how much work the OIO has to do to properly do its job."
"The appointment comes in the wake of a number of serious failures ... and is supposed to take pressure off Minister Upston's struggling OIO".
Haines should check "how many other potentially dodgy deals have been approved", said Cunliffe in a reference to the approval of the sale of Onetai Station in 2014 to Argentinian bidders convicted in a water pollution case and who used Mossack Fonseca, the law firm at the centre of the Panama Papers global tax avoidance leak, as their legal advisers on the transaction.
The government has accepted the OIO's argument that underfunding was slowing down approvals and allowed it to raise its fees for foreign investment applications so that more staff could be hired.
In response to a BusinessDesk request under the Official Information Act, the OIO confirmed it currently has 19 staff, of whom nine are senior solicitors, with three new appointments in May. The office declined to give information about the relevant experience of each OIO staff member on privacy grounds.
According to Haines's LinkedIn profile, she is currently a board member of BRANZ, the building standards and research body, and of the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand. Mersi's statement said her role will be to "help bring on board additional staff as a result of recent fee increases to fund improvements for faster application screening ... and will manage some of the pressures on the team, so enabling them to focus on their core work".
McClure has been manager of the OIO since August 2005, when the Overseas Investment Commission was renamed and moved from under the wing of the Reserve Bank to LINZ.
She had been ceo at the OIC for three months at the time of that change and has worked in the foreign investment approval process since early 2004.