Public Opposition to Land Sales Forces Government Backdown on Overseas Investment Act Liberalisation
When Bill English announced yet another review of the Overseas Investment Act, in early 2009, he said that its
recommendations would be made public by the middle of last year. It has taken until the end of September 2010 for that
to actually happen, a full 15 months late. When he announced that review National was all set for another gung ho
liberalisation of the Act to make New Zealand even more “attractive to foreign investors”. After all that is what Labour
did when it was in office and the result was the present 2005 Overseas Investment Act, which represented a considerable
liberalisation from its predecessor. NZ now has the dubious distinction of having one of the most laissez faire foreign
investment regimes in the world.
But this latest review has, contrary to a regular drip feed of information from “inside sources”, recommended precisely
no change to the Act. It has introduced two new measures to the Act’s accompanying Overseas Investment Regulations and
they both apply exclusively to investments in sensitive land: a new “economic interests” factor allowing Ministers to
consider whether NZ’s economic interests are adequately safeguarded and promoted; and a new “mitigating” factor enabling
Ministers to consider whether an overseas investment provides opportunities for NZ oversight or involvement e.g. by
appointing NZ directors or establishing a head office in NZ.
Some media commentators have labeled these as giving Ministers “veto powers” over foreign investment in large tracts of
farmland (actually, for as long as there has been an Overseas Investment Act - since 1973 - Ministers have always had
veto powers over all aspects of foreign investment. What’s been lacking is any political will or courage to actually use
them. But let’s not spoil a good story).
What has changed since Bill English announced this review 18 months ago? Obviously, the very large and growing larger
public opposition to relentless foreign takeovers of prime agricultural land, and specifically the Chinese bid for the
North Island dairy farms empire of the hapless Allan Crafar. There has always been public opposition to foreign takeover
of NZ rural land but what is different now is a qualitative change from rich foreign individuals wanting to buy
picturesque hobby farms for themselves (think Shania Twain) to agribusiness transnationals wanting to buy great chunks
of the dairy industry, which is the current engine of the NZ economy.
This has led to major unease among people who have been among National’s traditional backers and voters (which has taken
organised form with the recent launch of the Save The Farms group) and there has been evidence of a major difference of
opinion at the highest levels of the Government itself, with Maurice Williamson on the one side labeling opponents of
foreign investment as “racists” and John Key on the other, saying, more than once, that he doesn’t want to see New
Zealanders end up as tenants in our own country.
It would seem that the Key faction has prevailed – not only is the Overseas Investment Act not being liberalised, it is
not being changed at all, and a couple of essentially cosmetic measures have been tacked onto the Regulations to try and
satisfy public opposition to farm sales to foreigners.
The Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA) has always said that whilst land sales to foreigners are
important in themselves, they are only part of a much bigger picture, namely the wholesale economic recolonisation of
all sectors of the NZ economy by transnational corporations. The Government is trying to quarantine the contentious
issues of land sales, whilst saying and doing nothing about the big picture.
We congratulate the Government for not liberalising the Act any more than it already is but we call upon Key to take the
bull by the horns and actually substantially tighten it up. There is plenty of scope to do so. Start by exercising the
veto powers that Ministers already have (and always have had). Recognise that New Zealanders do not want to become
inhabitants of a branch office of a bunch of transnationals, and exercise some political will in the national interest.
It will be a novel feeling but you’ll get used to it. And if you do so your employers, the people of New Zealand, will
thank you for actually doing your job.