PM grabbed a chance to talk about the country’s wide open doorr

Colin Craig must be tougher than he looks. His revelation that the Chinese firm owning the Crafar farms has applied to buy another pastoral gem was fairly brutal retaliation for National's refusal to give him an electorate.

The whole country has now seen beautiful television pictures of Lochinver Farm and wonders again whether selling land to overseas interests is wise.

Craig could not own the issue for long. Winston Peters is much more practised at this sort of politics. David Cunliffe in his desperation boarded the bandwagon too. But it was the newcomer's initiative. He is more ruthless than National probably supposed, and obviously more resourceful too. It might be too soon to write him off.

He and Peters and Cunliffe must have been surprised in their turn, though, at John Key's response. On a swing through Porirua and Raumati with him on Wednesday, Herald reporter Isaac Davison found that, far from ducking and fudging the foreign ownership issue, Key was keen to bring it up at every stop. He was keener to talk about it than voters were, Davison reported.

Advertisement

Before the campaign is very much older it might dawn on Labour, if not the conservative parties, that an issue such as Lochinver Farm is perfectly suited to Key's intended theme at this election. He genuinely believes there is a new level of economic confidence in New Zealand now.

His problem is that confidence is not something that is spoken out loud. True confidence declares itself in actions, not words. In fact, to proclaim it is to invite doubt that it is real. The more strenuously it is said, the more you wonder why it needs to be said. Key needs to represent confidence in action and to do so, he needs opponents to challenge it.

Lochinver Farm is a good challenge. It is a visibly succulent property. Chinese buyers are a worry. Americans and Australians might have bought more of our land but they are reliable capitalists. They will hold it for as long as they can make a profitable use of it and sooner or later their plans will change and they will put it back on the market. I'd like to be sure Chinese corporations do the same.

Peters has made a career on those spectral fears and Key is the polar opposite. Key projects a calm, worldly knowledge of business behaviour that inclines people to trust him on these subjects. It is not what he says, it is his manner that works. His speeches on the theme will not make headlines, he needs more issues like Lochinver Farm.

The big sleeping Chinese investment that seemed most likely to arise at this election was in residential housing. The preponderance of Asian bidders at any house auction in Auckland over the past decade has been remarked upon by everyone who has attended them.

But the public acceptance has been even more remarkable. Despite the rocketing prices and the familiar sight of young Kiwi couples containing their disappointment, there has been no general outcry. Labour and Peters long ago announced policies to restrict ownership of residential property in some way, but their ideas haven't exactly taken fire.

Doubtless we will hear more about them in the weeks ahead. Key clearly hopes we do. He goes out of his way to talk about "connectedness", as he calls the international integration of economies through education, migration and trade.

Prime ministers have been talking about this ever since they opened the doors of the economy in the 1980s but it used to be said more in determination than conviction. We were still haunted by the disadvantages of a small population and a long distance from trade markets. Today, it feels like those worries belong to the last century. My adult children have never known anything else but unhindered trade, floating exchange rates, multicultural immigration and open property markets. Both have taken their skills overseas, one is still away but returns with her family often.

Advertisement

Migration to Australia, which worried this country so much 10 years ago, has reversed over the past year. More New Zealanders are coming back, fewer are leaving. This might last no longer than the construction boom in Christchurch but the new confidence seems capable of enduring.

Migration ebbs and flows, dairy prices rise and fall, the dollar can follow. But none of the falls feel as precipitate as they once did. The economy is underpinned by sound public finances, low inflation and reliable government. It is a well-trimmed vessel that has ridden through several international crises now, emerging from the last one sooner and in better condition than almost any other.

Foreign investment seems to have done us no harm. In fact we would be a smaller, meaner, more worried place without it. We've grown.