I’ve been unsettled by news that a significant number of large New Zealand dairy farms are being sold to overseas owners, or soon will be. The most recent instances are to a company which is to all extents and purposes Chinese, but it is not the ethnicity of these and other buyers that concerns me. They could be Australian, American, British or Mongolian – what matters is that they are not New Zealanders, they have money and New Zealanders are willing to take that money for short-term gain.
As I was pondering what this may mean in the longer term, an interesting analogy started brewing in the “what if” department of my grey matter. This may take more than a few sentences to explain, so bear with me.
Over the years I’ve had “robust discussions” with many Pakeha who are disgruntled by Maori demands in Treaty settlements and other historic land disputes. A common complaint is: “They sold the land in fair trading and knew what they were doing, and now they’re complaining that they were screwed and want more.”
Let’s set aside for now the response that most of the Treaty claims concern land that was NOT sold but confiscated or legislated away. These were illegal and must be redressed. For now I’m talking about the legal transactions that took place involving willing buyers and sellers. These would mostly have been small, local, incremental and spasmodic. There was not some wholesale decision by all of Maoridom at one time to sell their land to foreigners.
So when it’s said, “Maori chose to sell to settlers”, in fact what generally happened was that one Maori hapu (or even just their leader) made a transaction on one piece of land at one time because the payment – tools, clothing, muskets, money, patronage, whatever – was very attractive at the time, and it was just a small tract of land anyway. It may have been months or years later that a similar transaction happened elsewhere nearby, and then again in another place some time later, and so on – a bit here and a bit there.
Add this up over several decades and you end up with most of New Zealand owned and run by Pakeha settlers and many Maori asking, ‘How did that happen?’.
The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi did involve the consent of a significant proportion of Maori leaders. In contrast, however, most of the small, cheap sales of land packages around the country were by small autonomous groups of Maori here and there, doubtless paying little attention to the part they were playing in a decades-long trend of alienation of their land to foreigners. Local, short-term interests outweighed consideration of countrywide sociological trends. And one-off payments, in exchange for acre by acre over the country, would have proved too attractive in the short term to easily resist.
Some readers will realise where I’m going here, but for those who think I’m way off course, here’s the link back to dairy farm sales.
The trend in the farming industry over several decades is now clear: the small family farm is struggling to survive, farms are amalgamating to increase efficiency and productivity, and big agricultural businesses with off-site owners are creating ever bigger farms.
Large numbers of individual farmers, and in particular dairy farmers, are struggling to live with the ballooning size of the industry, the increasing valuation of their farms, and the debts they’ve taken on to expand and compete. One bad year of payouts and they’re in deep doodoo. Many have worked themselves into unsustainable positions.
Now they’re attracted by the idea of selling their farms at the going prices – take the money and run while they can before things get worse. Trouble is, not many other New Zealand farmers are able to buy; they’re also in precarious positions and living beyond their means in the hope of another boom year.
The big money is overseas – in the countries from which we’ve all been borrowing for years, and particularly over the past two years. The chickens are coming home to roost, as the saying goes. We’ve been borrowing to live beyond our means, and now we’re having to sell out to the people who fund our mortgages – mainly Chinese and other Asian countries.
So we’ve started already down the track of selling large tracts of land, one package after another, and once this gains momentum, I can’t see why other countries may not one day own the majority of New Zealand’s landmass. (And yes, even Crown-owned land could go – a desperate growth-driven government may sell some if it means having money for their constituents to keep enjoying their way of life.)
Much like the great Maori land alienation from iwi and hapu through the 19th Century, the great NZ outdoors will be sold package by package, each time for short-term gains to satisfy small numbers of people.
I may be wrong but . . . . I can see that eventually we Kiwis could become the on-site workforce for foreign owners – just like much of Maoridom became after colonisation and selling most of their land to Pakeha.
Those who are quite relaxed about selling out to foreigners (“It’s great that these people want to invest in our country and bring their money here,” they say) see any overseas investment as good, purely for the reason that “it creates jobs” (as if that’s the Meaning Of Life) and therefore allows us to maintain our lifestyle. This is short-term gratification.
We Kiwis (Pakeha and Maori and other immigrants over the years) may well find ourselves one day in the same position that Maori did after 100 years of the first great colonisation – financially better off and with better toys but with little meaningful say in how the country we once owned is run.
Some New Zealanders (such as dairy farmers and other business owners selling out) will become rich in the process, but most of us will be reliant on the goodwill of our new owners to be happy. They’ll employ us to work their land and their businesses, and we’ll use our wages to buy the things they make for us.
Of course, the trend of selling our sovereignty to other countries has been going on for about 30 years now in the wider business community – the overseas buy-up of our banks, telecoms, transport, etc. (Sorry, I meant the wonderful investment these new owners put into our country.) But most of these business sell-offs didn’t involve selling large tracts of actual land, just businesses and the profits they made. Now it’s getting much more serious as actual real estate is leaving our control.
Just as with Maori alienation from their land, it won’t all happen in a few months or a few years; it will be a trend over several decades. And once it’s done, there will be no way back to the days before the second great wave of colonisation. And our children will say, “Well I didn’t do it! Don’t blame me!”
But we’re all doing it if, in the name of maintaining our lifestyles, we are wooed by the argument that foreign investment in (ie, purchase of) our land is good for us.