Winston Peters' line in the sand... or farmland

We all know New Zealand First takes a hard line on foreign ownership. But with the Lochinver sale that line just got a little bit harder

This is why John Key has been saying to anyone who'll listen that you can take nothing for granted when it comes to this year's election. Out of left field... or at least a field near Taupo... can some an issue that blindsides you. This weekend it's Shanghai Pengxin's purchase of Lochniver Station and foreign ownership in general.

Colin Craig started the week with the news he must have dreaded hearing. No deal, said John Key. Craig had failed his year-long audition as National's dance partner. Key and his inner circle had been watching Craig, and watching Craig's impact on the polls, and decided he wasn't worth the candle in East Coast Bays.

If, say, the Conservatives get three percent and that's three percent of centre-right vote wasted, they'd rather lose the 1-2 percent of that's their share of that vote than greater damage by association. Or so Key has decided.

The winner out of this was Winston Peters. In short, National switched insurance policies. Rather than fall back on Craig if it can't reach 47 percent and govern again with Dunne, Seymour and Flavell, it will now have to fall back on Peters. The gamble being that Peters will choose to go with the bigger party, the more stable looking government and the one without Internet-Mana in it. And while Key was making soothing noises about a constructive relationship with New Zealand First, a gamble it still is.

Colin Craig has responded by sending Christine Rankin to Epsom (nothing more than a minor irritant) and revealing the proposed 13,800ha Lochniver sale a day after the House rose. While I'm sure he would have broken the story anyway, deal or no deal, its timing is a clear one-fingered response to the Prime Minister.

And so foreign ownership goes straight back on the political agenda, a topic that makes National decidedly uncomfortable because it's on the wrong side of public opinion on this one.

Steven Joyce on The Nation personified that discomfort, as he tried to argue Labour was no better given the many thousands of hectares sold when it was last in government. Grant Robertson came out with a reply other Labour MPs would do well to learn: "The thing is we have learned our lesson". Labour would ban absentee landlords from buying more than 5ha of productive land.

But cometh the foreign land sale, cometh Winston Peters. And boy did Peters lay it on the line.

This was as definitive as Peters can be. With Paddy Gower on The Nation he said:

“Every New Zealander out there who's looking at this programme can trust my word on this. Not because I say it now, but because I've done it. We would not allow this deal.”

But here's the crucial bit. He went further.

Gower: "I need you to be really clear on this. You would withdraw an offer of supply or confidence to a National government if they were prepared to tick this off? You would say to them, 'You have to decline this sale— Your ministers have to decline this sale or you don't get us across the line'."

Peters: "You guys know what our position is. We are not selling our soul or this country's soul. And we are against this sale, and we will not be going into any arrangement with any party that think they can go on doing this. That's it..."

So New Zealand First will not go into ANY arrangement - presumably from coalition right down to supply and confidence - with National if it goes on DOING THIS, ie selling farms.

That's a pretty definitive line in the sand... or rather line in the paddock. It seems Peters and Craig might be about to try to out-tough each other on foreign ownership. It raises the question of how Key will respond and how flexible National might be on the issue. More, it makes that insurance policy Key took out on Peters look just a little bit risky.