Foreign ownership brings out dog-whistlers

dogTHE DEBATE over foreign investment in agriculture is clouded in politics, ambition and fear. It polarises farmers, political parties, investors and the community.

Yet foreign investment in New Zealand agriculture has been a reality for decades. In fact, New Zealand agriculture was founded on foreign investment.

With former Labour leader and trade minster Phil Goff recently pulling his Rural Land Sales Bill from the parliamentary private members ballot, we are going to hear this issue debated again.

Many in the farming sector may sympathise with the populist intent of Goff’s bill, but they should be careful what they wish for.  Are they saying a farmer who owns the land does not have the right to sell it to the highest bidder, if that happens to be a foreigner? That has severe connotations for his business, income and retirement.

Farmers create income for the country by producing products better than anyone else and allowing that produce to be sold to the world for high prices. Are we now saying New Zealand-produced milk, meat, fruit and wine should not be sold to these overseas buyers because it makes prices to locals too high?

No doubt Goff’s bill will garner support from the xenophobes in NZ First, the economic isolationists in the Greens and the populists in Labour.  Supporters of this bill will claim it is intended to protect New Zealand for New Zealanders, but in reality it is simple dog-whistle politics.

It’s not really about foreign ownership, it’s about Asian ownership. However, the real foreign land owners in this country ironically aren’t Asian – they’re Brits and Australians. Look at the media coverage of the Shanghai Pengxin purchase of the Crafar farms, compared to that of Hollywood director James Cameron buying his growing swath of land in Wairarapa.

What’s the difference? Both are foreign owners. They can’t take the land back to their home countries. They are employing New Zealanders, buying New Zealand inputs and investing back into New Zealand.  Surely this is all good for our economy?

New Zealand is a player in the global market and a strong proponent of free trade. Is it not more than a little ironic – even hypocritical – that the great free trader now wants to restrict who we will sell our farmland to? We can’t expect to play in a global market with free trade deals and open access if we’re going to slam the door on foreign investment.