Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Farm sales okay, as long as there's jobs

Labour partly agrees with poll after Lochinver Station becomes election issue

A majority of voters approve of farm sales to foreigners only when it brings a significant advantage over a New Zealand buyer such as jobs, according to the latest Herald-DigiPoll survey.

Nearly a third believe farm sales should be banned altogether and 13 per cent believe there should be no restrictions. The survey was taken between August 14 and 20.

The question was asked in light of the controversy over the proposed sale of the 13,800ha Lochinver Station near Taupo to Shanghai Pengxin, the company that bought the Crafar Farms in a joint venture with Landcorp.

Read more: Leaders in the Hot Seat

The application for Lochinver is before the Overseas Investment Office which will deliver a recommendation to the Government. Labour has promised to block the sale unless it is approved before the September 20 election.

Labour finance spokesman David Parker said Labour's position sat somewhere between answers one and two in the DigiPoll survey.

It would stop land sales over 5ha except in very rare circumstances. Land sales to foreigners did not increase output, he said.

He was not persuaded by the argument that some sales could release capital to be reinvested by the New Zealand owner to create new jobs - which is the argument the Lochinver Station owners are making.

"That from our point of view is not a very strong argument," Mr Parker said. " The key to having deeper pool of capital in New Zealand isn't selling our land. It's actually saving more through a universal work-based savings scheme."

He said the criteria for farm sales was tightened after the Crafar Farms sale but it had been negated by the Government directing the Overseas Investment Office to favourably consider farms up to 10 times the size of the average farm.

Finance Minister Bill English suggested the first answer reflected Government policy and the poll confirmed the Government has its policy settings about right.

"The Government has struck a balance between ensuring New Zealand is open for business with the rest of the world to support jobs and higher incomes, and also tightening the rules for overseas investment in sensitive land compared to those introduced by the previous Labour Government with the support of New Zealand First."

He said the rules were further tightened by the courts during the Crafar Farms sale process, when they demanded an even higher threshold for overseas buyers.

"So overseas buyers must now show they will bring substantial and identifiable benefits to New Zealand over and above what New Zealand buyers would bring. This is a high hurdle and under the National-led Government, the amount of rural land approved for sale to overseas investors each year is averaging less than half of what it was under the previous Labour Government."

Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, who opposes the sale, broke the story of the application to buy Lochinver.

He told the Hot Seat interviews for the Herald website the answer could be to break up the station or lease it.

"There is absolutely no problem with taking a creative view."

It already had residences scattered all around it .

"It is not a far-fetched proposal whatsoever to suggest maybe create farms with one residence on each."

Act leader Jamie Whyte opposes the restriction on farm sales to foreigners and said sales created a net gain for New Zealand.

"Foreign investment is resources that have been created overseas being directed into New Zealand. Why on earth would you want to stop that?

"There is actually a net gain because the land owner would only sell to the foreigner if it was a higher price than could be obtained from anybody in New Zealand."

He said if the argument was that foreigners should be restricted to allow young New Zealand farmers to buy, what that was effectively doing was forcing the current owner of the farm to take a loss to subsidise a young farmer into it.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters could not be reached.

- NZ Herald

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