COMMENT:

A few days ago, a well-respected business leader in New Zealand wrote an opinion piece setting out his views for what New Zealand needs to do to economically recover in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the initiatives he suggested went like this: We could make 1000 sections available for, say, $5 million plus construction project costs, therefore adding $5 billion of residential construction and jobs to our economy this year.

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I've been noodling over that and, at the risk of getting into an argument with this person (something I have a long history of doing but which, thankfully, I've avoided for a couple of years) I have to say I disagree with the notion.

At face value, the idea is appealing: 1000 lifestyle blocks wouldn't even make a tiny dent in the undeveloped land we have in New Zealand, and $5b worth of construction, alongside all the attendant jobs to service these people, would be appealing.

But then I thought about it, and considered that word: "service".

You see, there was a time in history when a similar system existed. When rich individuals would own land, and around them would be other people whose very existence depended upon those anointed individuals' ongoing patronage. It was called feudalism and it was the epitome of a classed society where a tiny number of individuals held the land and the power, and everyone else was in servitude to them.

So. What's the issue with carving off a bit of land and selling it to the highest bidders?

What it does, is it makes New Zealanders essentially tenants in our own country. Once we've sold off those blocks, there's no going back. We are, forevermore, reliant on the grace of those purchasers to keep coming here and keep employing us to clean their pools and mow their lawns.

I'm reminded of another recent new New Zealander: Peter Thiel. The Silicon Valley billionaire famously used back channels to gain citizenship in New Zealand (and he did so, I might add, secretly). The proposition was that his citizenship would result in him spending some of his billions here in New Zealand – investing in local companies, generally espousing to the world how awesome New Zealand is. As it happened, he bought a bit of property here, made a few token investments, and has never been seen since.

True, the Thiel situation related to citizenship and not land ownership but I'd suggest that land ownership is an even more problematic notion: as the saying goes, "buy land, son, they're not making any more".

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Billionaire Peter Thiel obtained citizenship in New Zealand. Photo / File
Billionaire Peter Thiel obtained citizenship in New Zealand. Photo / File

Land is a limited resource and, once it's locked up in the ownership of some Silicon Valley tech guru, South African diamond miner or Swiss financier, it's gone for good.

The other thing this notion does is to set a precedent that every time the economy takes a dip (or, for that matter, we want to spend some money without earning it first) we carve off another bit of land and hock it off to the new batch of landed gentry. It seems to me that the suggestion is the notion of living beyond one's means writ large. It sells off the most precious resource we have, and the resource we're meant to safeguard for future generations, to today's highest bidder, for a little bit of short-term benefit.

I know a chap who makes a living building houses for these sort of people. The kind of individuals who come to New Zealand for a few weeks a year and like to sip wine in trendy London or New York bars and tell their friends about their boltholes downunder.

And while this chap, and a large number of tradespeople, do pretty well out of these projects, they'd be the first to admit that this sort of development isn't additive to New Zealand's economy. It's extraction without the benefit of ongoing economic contribution.

Ben Kepes. Photo / Supplied
Ben Kepes. Photo / Supplied

Lastly, there is an aspect in all of this that centres around who we are as a people. As someone said to me this morning: "We are a nation with a strong sense of identity, our migrant communities have been characterised by the huge contributions they have made to our society. We have led the world in addressing the grievances of our indigenous people."

This is who we are. We should be careful to protect that identity and cherish our values. Inviting people into our community solely on the basis of their financial contribution risks the very essence of our society.

Financially, this sort of notion drives unwanted long-term impacts. Socially, it isn't aligned with who we are as a people. While generating a few billion very rapidly is appealing, we can't lose sight of the longer-term picture.

• Ben Kepes is a Christchurch-based investor and entrepreneur.