Govt's Crafar China sale decision slammed

Government ministers have approved the purchase of the Crafar farms by the Chinese company Shanghai Pengxin, but the decision has been heavily criticised by a rival bidder.

In a statement, Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson said he and Associate Finance Minister Jonathan Coleman had approved the Overseas' Investment Office's (OIO) new recommendation to allow the purchase of the 16 farms.

He said the ministers were satisified that even on the most conservative approach, the application met the criteria set out in the Overseas Investment Act.

Mr Coleman said the approval was given with 27 conditions to ensure the investment by Milk New Zealand - Shanghai Penxin's subsidiary in New Zealand - would deliver substantial benefits to New Zealand.

The bid was initially approved in January but the High Court returned it to the OIO, saying there were matters it had not properly considered in its original recommendation.

The ministers have been considering the bid for several weeks since the OIO gave its revised recommendation to them.

The revised recommendation will require Milk NZ to spend $2m more than it would have under the January approval.

The new conditions require investment of at least $16 million for additional development by May 31, 2017.

Many of the other conditions are the same, including establishing an on-farm training facility and giving two annual scholarships of $5000 to trainee farmers. It must also provide walking access over Benneydale and Taharua stations, and protect sacred Maori sites, including returning the Te Ruaki pa site to the Crown for nothing if required in a Treaty settlement.

Sir Michael Fay - the leader of a rival bid by a consortium that had challenged the original consent - said the deal set a precedent that would "open the farmgates'' for a flood of other overseas investors.

He said the group was disappointed and its iwi members were "justifiably angry''.

"It is hard to comprehend that this sale can go ahead only because a Government-owned entity, Landcorp, has partnered with Shangahai Pengxin to provide the necessary business acumen and expertise required for OIO approval.

"It would mean any potential foreign owner would be approved if they could 'buy in' sufficient New Zealand expertise to effectively make a nullity of this key requirement in the OIO rules.''

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said the deal was a result of "intense pressure'' from the Chinese Government.

"Chinese Government officials have warned that turning down the bid would jeopardise future foreign investment in New Zealand,'' he said.

"However, allowing the large-scale purchase of our productive farmland by overseas buyers, is not in New Zealand's long-term strategic economic interest.''

Meanwhile, United Future leader Peter Dunne has called for a review of the Overseas Investment Act, and a move to allow long-term leases on productive farmland rather than sales to overseas owners.

"Other countries - including China - jealously guard their own land and never allow it to be sold to foreigners,'' Mr Dunne said.

"You can only sell your birthright once, and it is not xenophobia or racism for a country to decide to look after the interests of its citizens - it is common sense and the duty of government.''

Milk New Zealand spokesman Cedric Allan said the company hoped to finalise the purchase and move onto the farms within a month.

"We have waited a long time for it, but have always been confident because we thought we had a good case.''

He said an average of $1m needed to be spent on each site.

"That's really turbocharging them and also upgrading them from an environmental point of view. That's quite significant expansion.''

Milk NZ would now talk to the receivers about settling the transaction and form a joint venture company with LandCorp to manage the farms. It would also have to buy shares in Fonterra for milk processing.

The approval also included strong conditions which, if they were not met, would require Milk New Zealand to sell the farms. Such conditions could not be imposed on a domestic purchaser.

Mr Allan said the reaction to the purchase was unwarranted and talk about opening the floodgates to Chinese companies buying large land tracts was scaremongering.

"This has been the most discussed land transaction in the history of New Zealand. China will still be one of the smallest owners of New Zealand farmland. It's 16 farms and there are more than 10,000 in New Zealand.''

 

 

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