The Labour Party has had many months to develop a considered response to the inevitable sale of the Crafar farms to a Chinese billionaire, but when the deal finally got ministerial approval last week, where was Labour? Trying to drive up the dead-end cul de sac marked xenophobia already occupied by New Zealand First's Winston Peters.

Mr Peters called it "economic treason," which, in the hysteria stakes, just trumps Labour's primary industry spokesman Damien O'Connor, who went for "gutless, unpatriotic and unproductive". Labour's economic development spokesman David Cunliffe warned New Zealanders "are set to become tenants in their own land under the Government's policies," while finance spokesman David Parker declared "Labour is opposed to rural land sales to overseas buyers".

New leader David Shearer's line was that "keeping New Zealand assets like the Crafar farms in New Zealand hands is a principle worth fighting for," adding hastily that it was a battle "totally detached from racism and xenophobia".

Unfortunately for Labour, in suddenly wrapping themselves in the New Zealand flag and shouting "New Zealand assets/land for New Zealanders" in response to the purchase of 7800ha of dairy land by a Chinese buyer, it's hard for them to avoid the taint. And the suspicion they're exploiting public sentiment running 85 per cent against the sale. Why now all the complaining?


Overseas Investment Office data shows more than 170,000ha of farm land was sold to overseas interests in the six years from July 2005 to May 2011. Most of that was of sheep and beef properties. In the five years to mid-2010, the top three purchasing nationalities were the United Kingdom, Italy and the United States, each with between 34,000ha-40,000ha.

The New Zealand Farmers Weekly reported last July that in the previous six years, only six per cent (5760ha) of foreign sales had been of dairy properties, of which German interests had purchased more than half. It noted that before the Crafar purchase, Chinese and Hong Kong buyers remain a minute portion of total foreign sales, with only 533ha of land in total sold to these investors over the past six years.

In July last year when Prime Minister John Key tried to have a bet each way over the Crafar farms debate, muttering he didn't want New Zealanders to become tenant farmers in their own land, Lincoln University farm management professor Keith Woodford called for an informed debate "as to whether this is the way we want to go".

He pointed to the wine industry which "on a volume basis [is] about 70 per cent foreign-owned".

Our forest plantations were even more alienated, he said, calculating that as of 1999, 72 per cent of pine forests were foreign-owned, 35 per cent by United States companies, 12 per cent by Asian interests.

Mr Shearer is now saying "keeping New Zealand assets like the Crafar farms in New Zealand hands is a principle worth fighting for". With our banks and insurance companies and much else long sold off - $45 billion worth in the hands of Australians the last time I checked - it seems a little late in the day for Labour to espouse this particular principle.

With all the patriotic blood rushing to the heads of opposition politicians, it's a surprise the plight of alleged internet pirate Kim Dotcom has left them seemingly unmoved.

As far as issues of sovereignty are concerned, the ownership of a handful of remote dairy farms is of much less concern to me than the thought of the world's only super-power, dialling up the local Auckland police and deputising a mini-Swat team of 70 to swoop down in helicopters in a dawn raid on a Coatesville mansion to arrest the leaders of an international internet file-sharing site that's been getting up the noses of Hollywood film moguls.

Coming fast on the heels of extradition proceedings launched in Britain by the United States against a 23-year old student Richard O'Dwyer for similar alleged offences, it's a flexing of the imperial eagle's talons that should be worrying patriots everywhere. Mr O'Dwyer's website allegedly enabled visitors to download pirated films and television. If extradited he faces up to 10 years in prison even though there are doubts it's an offence under British law.

There has long been debate about who should police the internet. The United States government, under pressure from the international movie and recording giants, has decided to clean up the wild west of cyberspace on its own. With a little help from extradition treaties it has with some countries - New Zealand and Britain for two - but not, it seems, Mr Dotcom's homeland, Germany.

As far as international justice goes, I'm not so sure we should be giving the United States a free rein. When it comes to international crusades, the US is not averse to ignoring, or rewriting the rules of law. Osama bin Laden and Pakistan found out about that. So do the prisoners in the extraterritorial no-man's land of Guantanamo Bay. The word "rendition" gained a new meaning under the American justice system, describing the process of spiriting a suspect wrong-doer by plane to Afghanistan or some other lawless base, where water-boarding and other tortures can take place outside the bounds of the victim's US constitutional rights.

New Zealand's 1970 extradition treaty with the US has been going through a "modernisation" process since 2006. For politicians fearful of threats to our sovereignty, this is a more immediate worry than the ownership of a few remote dairy farms.