A slackening in foreign investment rules aimed at showing the world "New Zealand is open for business" will make it easier for overseas investors to buy assets such as Auckland Airport.

Finance Minister Bill English yesterday said the Government was dropping criteria preventing the sale of "strategically important assets" into foreign hands as part of a raft of changes aimed at encouraging greater foreign investment. Mr English said it was possible the change would put Auckland Airport back on the sales block, although any bid would be subject to the same screening process as for any other major foreign investment.

The Government will introduce a new right to veto on the grounds of "national interest" - but Mr English expected it to be used so rarely that he could not think of a case which might require it to be invoked. He said New Zealand's vital assets were already protected from foreign ownership, either because of foreign ownership restrictions - in the case of Telecom and Air New Zealand - or because they were state-owned.

Labour associate finance spokesman David Parker said the weakening of protection against the sale of strategic infrastructure assets risked losing a valuable asset for New Zealand.

Mr English said the Government would continue to protect things New Zealanders had legitimate concerns about, such as land and large businesses. Overseas investors would be subject to higher conditions, especially around stewardship and public access rights. However, attracting investment would become urgent as unemployment levels grew.

"Let's get practical - we need the money because we need the jobs. Essentially our message is let's stop being defensive. Let's tell the world we are open for business, this is a great place to invest, not a place that says 'well you look different from us so we're going to make it as hard as possible'."

The right to veto foreign purchases of strategic infrastructure was inserted by the Labour government to allow it to avoid a repeat of the attempt by the Canadian Pension Fund to buy a large stake in Auckland Airport.

The Government also intended to simplify the process of investing in sensitive land and will raise the $100 million threshold above which foreign investments require approval.

The Overseas Investment Commission, rather than ministers, will also make the final decision on up to 40 per cent more applications.

EASIER RIDE FOR GLOBAL INVESTORS

* Remove veto on sales of "strategically important assets".

* Allow ministers to use "national interest" as a last resort measure to veto foreign ownership stakes in rare cases.

* Lift the $100 million threshold above which Overseas Investment Commission screening of investments is needed. New limit not yet set.

* Narrow the range of land considered "sensitive" and trim down the 27 criteria for buying such land.