Conservative Party leader Colin Craig touched a nerve with voters when he revealed Crafar farms' buyer Shanghai Pengxin was about to add the Lochinver Station near Taupo to its portfolio.
Foreign direct investment, particularly when land is involved, is a political hot potato. This issue is likely to influence the way many people vote. Polls show a huge majority are concerned about land sales to foreign buyers. Politicians on both the left and right have been quick to capitalise on fears New Zealanders could end up as tenants in their own country.
Despite popular concerns, there's a clear message from CEOs that government needs to stay open to foreign investment, with many underlining its importance to the wider economy.
Four out of five business leaders responding to the Herald survey are against a government ban on foreign investors purchasing farms of more than five hectares unless they become New Zealand residents.
Mainfreight group managing director Don Braid sums up the prevailing option: "We don't understand how much foreign investment has come to NZ or not, but we do need the capital. We don't generate enough of our own, I do think we do need to manage it and it needs to be for the benefit of the economy. I'm sure as hell not about selling NZ off to everybody offshore but I do think that some of that foreign investment is important for the country."
A high proportion of CEOs - 79 per cent - say the Government should not stop the Lochinver Station sale. An even greater number - 86 per cent - want the Government to do a better job of selling the benefits of foreign direct investment. More than 70 per cent of CEOs reject plans to ban foreign investors from vertical integration in the dairy industry.
Westpac acting CEO David McLean goes into bat for foreign investment. He writes: "NZ has always had a lot of FDI. We've just got to work through what the issues are. We're pretty open in that. A lot of the debate around it seems very emotive, and you know xenophobic. Not rational. It would be better to have a rational discussion about it. Farming in New Zealand is moving from an owner-operator model to a more corporate model, particular dairy farming, and capital is needed. Again, if we're not saving enough capital ourselves as a country then we have to import capital."
The importance of foreign investment to the overall health of the economy worries Tim Bennett from NZX. "Suppose the first comment is we absolutely need it. We're quite happy to have indirect foreign investment through our banking sector to fund our property, our obsession with property as a country. But the reality is that we have a high cost-to-capital in NZ, what that means is that when you look at Lochinver Station, we've got some Chinese investors, got a lower cost-to-capital, it makes the economics work."
There's a clear majority - 69 per cent - in favour of setting up a foreign investment review board to take responsibility for dealing with offshore bids out of the hands of Cabinet ministers. And 62 per cent are in favour of rewriting the Overseas Investment Act to clarify the law. Roughly the same number are against proposals to renegotiate investment provisions in free trade agreements to exclude farmland.
Just over half would be happy if foreign investors were required to form joint-ventures with local companies when dealing with strategic assets.
Many CEOs point out foreign owners are not able to pick up land and take it away. Peter Reidie at Goodman Fielder says: "If they [foreign investors] value something within our country more than we do, we need to take a look at ourselves."
Veda managing director John Roberts says New Zealand needs to attract foreign capital, particularly in the commodities sectors. Another CEO warns that the "phobia of foreign investment in farms is just that -- the land cannot be taken anywhere".
Franceska Banga from NZ Venture Investment Fund is measured.
"Foreign investors can't take the land away, so New Zealand isn't going to lose it, but losing significant land holdings for all time may be an issue. We need to think about long-term lease options and ensure foreign-controlled land doesn't breach a certain threshold."
A number of CEOs are happy with foreign direct investment so long as reciprocal rules apply.
Traci Houpapa of the Federation of Maori Authorities says: "We need a model of domestic ownership and foreign investment." Another CEO says: "I believe only New Zealand residents or citizens should be allowed to buy local land. Foreign investment should be focused on building businesses."
An expat CEO now living in New Zealand complains of difficulty buying a family home "when investors from India and China snap up properties purely as investments".