Chinese firms are eyeing local contracts, but some builders are voicing concern, report Anne Gibson and Fran O'Sullivan.
Transmission Gully motorway users could find themselves paying tolls to China in a few years' time if a Chinese Government-owned company mounts a successful bid for the project.
One of the world's biggest contractors, the global China Road and Bridge Corporation, is eyeing up several major New Zealand roading contracts including the long-planned Wellington motorway. CRBC's preference is to bid-in finance and recoup the costs through tolls - a prospect that might appeal to the Government if it decides such major infrastructure can be delivered faster and cheaper by the Chinese in capital-constrained times.
Orewa-based Hopper Developments has formed an alliance with CRBC whose parent company, China Communications Construction - ranked 341st on the Fortune Global 500 list - dwarfs NZ-domiciled construction firms like Fletcher Building and Hawkins.
Evans Young of Hopper says discussions with the Chinese state-owned enterprise began over a year ago and were concluded successfully.
"They have been looking for someone to represent them in New Zealand and they are looking to pick up work. They have been working in emerging nations in Africa, the mid-East and Far East and with the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China they decided to look at New Zealand and we have been talking to them for 15 months.
"They have asked us to represent them in trying to pick up some of the major infrastructure jobs."
Young cites Wellington's Transmission Gully project, the Waikato Expressway and Auckland's Waterview as potential prospects.
He explains that CRBC would be the principal contractor and his company would assist them as a local entity.
"They are quite a significant player in infrastructure worldwide, they have skills in the PPP area and they may also be able to bring funding avenues to the table."
Asked how New Zealanders would like tolls from their motorways to go to China, Young cites competitive advantage and timing.
"If we can advance the improvement of our roading system, there are advantages, " he says. "The more variety (of contractors) we have in the mix, the more certain we are we get value for money."
Herald inquiries show CRBC top officials presented their credentials to the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) on a recent visit to Auckland.
Transport Minister Steven Joyce says he has no issues with China competing for major roading contracts - "not at all, they're most welcome."
"Obviously from NZTA's point of view they want to see as much competition among the bigger tenders as they can. I don't know how seriously the Chinese are taking it and how seriously they'll bid but we'll just have to wait and see."
But Joyce stresses there is no way the Waikato Expressway or Waterview would be funded by toll projects.
He says there are some areas - including the Waikato Expressway and Auckland motorway network - that motorists were entitled to expect would be completed as part of the Government's normal funding process and without an additional dollar cost to them.
But other major motorways like the Tauranga-Eastern Link route, the Northern Gateway expansion from Puhoi to Warkworth and Transmission Gully will be tolled.
Some rival building bosses are already fretting about competition from China and construction goods flowing into New Zealand from there.
"Anything you can fit into a container is coming in," says one worried builder, noting the sudden rise of imported roofing tiles. "And a lot of the stuff in those containers is real crap, not up to our standards. Yet a lot of people wouldn't know the difference between the New Zealand-made goods, manufactured to all the standards and regulations, and those from China."
Other builders are more concerned about Chinese-headquartered construction and contracting businesses bidding bargain rates for big Government contracts. They fear cut-price bids and poor work standards if New Zealand opens the door to those firms.
"The only place I've seen Chinese building firms is in third world countries. We don't want them," one builder says.
"They put up cheap crap, substitute good materials for rubbish and have coolies who live on-site and who they pay a pittance to. They have a record of poor building quality standards and low health and safety compliance," the builder claimed.
The FTA has clear constraints which should prevent Chinese firms bringing in low-paid "coolies".
But Chris Hunter, Hawkins' chief executive, says many finishing trades here are already dominated by Asian workers: gib stopping, plastering and painting. "I think it's inevitable across the world that there will be an increase in Asian business people investing in our country as families establish here and other family members come as well."
Infrastructure Minister Bill English stresses that the Government is keen to see more contestability for major projects because it "gets quality up and the cost to the taxpayer down".
"We increasingly want to be working with people willing to pick up more risk and more responsibility. And in that process where we don't do business with any particular companies we try and get the settings right and the companies show up.
"We've got a process that tests all those things and if people have better options then we just need to make sure they are tested thoroughly on it, on an objective basis, rather than get tied up in politics and lobbying."
English concedes a potential move by CRBC into the local construction market would put pressure on other operators." But I think they would sharpen their pencils and get innovative."
One Chinese business active already is King Facade, a subsidiary of Chinese-owned Mainzeal Property & Construction.
Peter Gomm, Mainzeal chief executive, says King Facade is meeting a market need for proven window, rain screens and facade systems in New Zealand.
"The business is a New Zealand subsidiary working with local architects and design engineers tapping into a supply chain that uses European-based technology and manufactured in China.
"The objective is that we can provide cost-effective increased quality built envelopes for many buildings including multi-unit dwellings, commercial and education facilities.
"This initiative was enabled by the free trade agreement with China and is consistent with the Government's objective of tripling the growth of free trade between the two countries in the next five years."
Murray Horton of the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa says he has not heard of the Chinese move into infrastructure but he objected to that and the push for road privatisation.
"It doesn't matter what the nationality is of the foreign investor, our position is the same if they're Australian, American, British or Chinese."