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Q+A: Transcript of panel discussion on David Mahon interview

Published: 4:35PM Sunday April 08, 2012 Source: Q+A

GREG BOYED
This morning were fortunate to have Dr Bryce Edwards, a political lecturer at Otago University. Good morning to you. Matt McCarten, political organiser from way back and unionist as well as columnist, and Michael Barnett from the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. Thank you, all three of you, for coming in. Michael and Matt, the Shanghai Pengxin deal, is it a good one or not? [SILENCE]

MICHAEL BARNETT - Auckland Chamber of Commerce
Thanks, Matt, Ill go first.

MATT McCARTEN - Unite Union
I just want you to go first so I can shoot you down.

MICHAEL  Ok, Ill be a target. Um, look, I think it is a good deal. A couple of points that I would like to make: I think right now it is a legal case. We do have a situation, and they talked about there looking at the bigger argument. At the moment, anybody can buy land. If we want to change that, were going to have to go to change. At the moment, anybody can buy land. To me, theyve put up a good business case. Its been part of free trade agreement discussions by successive governments. Businesses have supported it. We will support it. I have some objection to somebody whos taking the gains out of deregulation in New Zealand some years ago, whipped off to a tax haven and coming back here looking for a $40 million discount and pulling the xenophobe card. I really have difficulty with that.

GREG On the subject of Michael Fay and his organisation, this certainly makes Shanghai Pengxin look like a good deal, because its a lot more money than he was offering.

MATT I think on commercial terms, its absolutely right. I think the point that Russel Norman is making, though, is not actually about that. Its about the sovereignty of the country and about who owns New Zealand, etc. So straight commercial, youre right. I agree with you, Michael, that Michael Fay - you know, we all know him about the Americas Cup, we all thought that him going to court and trying to square the rules to get his way was a clever thing. Weve grown up since them. Hes trying the same thing now. So, commercially, I think you have to give it over to the Chinese, but the debate is not about that. And for people to use the xenophobia card is the reason why people oppose-

GREG What are we to make of the Greens with the xenophobia? This is a come one, come all party. On the other hand-

DR BRYCE EDWARDS - Political Analyst
I think this is why the Greens are 17% in the latest poll. Its because they have been the ones that have played this nationalist, populist card the best, and theyre the ones that are most able to take the votes off National on this. And its increasingly seen as a card that has a racist tinge, as we saw from David Mahon in that earlier interview. I think we should quickly discuss this tenants in our own country phrase because it comes up over and over, and National, of course, were the ones that brought it up. Its a ridiculous slogan, I think, because already in this country were basically tenants in our own country because were talking about productive assets here, and 99% of us dont own the productive assets of this country already. Were already tenants in our own country. So its really just a question of that 1% - is it going to be Chinese, or is it going to be Michael Fay?

MICHAEL The Greens havent played a xenophobe card. What theyve done is they have actually said, Look, at the moment, anybody can buy land. We dont like that. So their position is an ideological position, and theyve played it cleanly.

BRYCE Its New Zealand for New Zealanders line.

GREG But theyve been quiet on that line when it came to your Shania Twains, your James Camerons, the Brits on the East Coast. Now, all of a sudden, were hearing from the Greens.

MATT No, no, no, no. The Greens were. And I remember when Shania Twain was buying the land in Canterbury and the Greens were attacking it, everyone was saying, Oh, you know, thats terrible, that the Greens werent supportive of it because she was who she was. Now, and this is where the xenophobia - not so much the Greens, but the New Zealand public - why was it ok to sell it her, but not the Chinese?

BRYCE The Greens pushed their firepower against this Chinese deal, so it does raise questions, I think.

MICHAEL It is a little ideological. What theyre looking to do is the case that was made by David Mahon - that if we do have to go back and reassess, and if we want to work on leases or some other mechanisms, if we do want to use legislation or some sort of regulation to control what happens and what doesnt happen, if we do have to go back, then go back. Thats what the Greens are doing.

MATT I listened to Mahon. This is stuck in my mind. Hes the first person Ive ever heard when he talked about land and he talked about race, he talked about between Pakeha and Polynesians. Theyre called Maori.

GREG But also hard to believe that the degree of minutia about the racial workings of this country were a hot topic in China.

MATT No, no, no. And exactly the point. The Chinese are not naïve. Theyve got this all round the world. New South Wales: huge issue. South America: huge. The parliaments there- For example, Argentina just passed rules saying you cant sell more than 1000 hectares. No more than 15% of their arable land can be sold. The Chinese, theyre getting this all over the world.

GREG Lets talk about the lease idea that David Mahon put forward. That seems like a good one where you seem to get the cake and keep the icing as well. Why arent we looking more seriously at that?

MATT Because capitalism believes in private ownership. (LAUGHS)

MICHAEL They have done, but theres no reason that we shouldnt look at change, and thats why when I have a look at what the Greens are saying, I dont have difficulty. But the point is, right now if you want to buy land in New Zealand, you can buy it. If you want to change that, lets have the debate. Lets not wait till youve got a free trade agreement sitting there and people having expectations that they can buy land for somebody to then throw in the card. When the movie mogul bought the land and the singing lady bought the land, no issue. Somebodys thrown in the card here. To me, this is Winston Peters in drag, it really is.

BRYCE Inconsistent stuff.

GREG Having said that, lest we not forget 20% of our dairys going there. Politically, if we do hack them off too much, this is going to absolutely blow up in our face.

MATT I just said before, Mahon has got a job. I mean, hes a mercenary whos getting rich off the deal. So lets just put that. Sutton - theyre all doing it for their own reasons. Its a bit of an irony with Russel being an Aussie and actually protecting us from our own people.

GREG Weve seen the way our government- You bring an international camera crew along here and you bring along the Dalai Lama and they disappear. They dont want to look like theyre- (MATT LAUGHS)

MICHAEL It isnt just the Chinese. This is a principle-based discussion. You know, if we get it wrong here, youve got a whole succession of others watching. If we need to change the platform under which we want to have the arrangement, then we need to change the platform.

GREG So who is watching, and if they are wanting to invest, are we going to go through the same rigmarole then?

MICHAEL In our free trade agreements, theres the opportunity to invest, and thats what was in the free trade agreement with China - the opportunity to invest. The question to ask the Chinese is, Would you still take the investment if it was leased?

GREG If this agreement doesnt go through with Shanghai Pengxin, is Michael Fay our only option?

BRYCE It seems to be, and thats the big thing for National. Do they align themselves with Michael Fay, which is a bit of a losing situation as well, or go with the Chinese? I think theyre in trouble, National, with this one. They dont know which way to go. Theyve got two stark choices. They either have to go with what-

MATT Both of them are losers.

BRYCE Yeah, both of them are losers. Either they go with the economic argument that this is good for New Zealand, which I think the government truly believes, or they go with the populist one of getting rid of this deal.

MATT I would do what the Chinese would do, which is what Michael was alluding to, that we could nationalise all the land and we could lease it out. Hows that? (MATT CHUCKLES)