Forestry Minister Shane Jones has instructed officials to explore law changes that would ensure wood product is prioritised for New Zealand-based projects after the COVID-19 lockdown, instead of it being shipped overseas.
It comes as the union representing construction and infrastructure workers, AWUNZ, called for help from Jones to introduce forestry quotas and regulation to prevent "foreign-driven forest obliteration" after the lockdown.
"Shane Jones says he is the regional saviour," Maurice Davis, AWUNZ national secretary, said on Friday. "I fear an avalanche of logs for short-term profit will disappear overseas to the detriment of Kiwi manufacturing and construction jobs."
Davis said the priority must be looking after Kiwis' bank balances before foreign forest owners, and warned Jones that Kiwi jobs and regional families will be the people likely voting for him, so "if he does not stop the foreign forest felling the voters will cut him down".
He said Jones needs to inform log exporters that Kiwi processing firms "outrank their overseas appetites" and that the Government needs to look after Kiwi jobs and timber firms "before we fuel the Shanghai Express".
Jones, a New Zealand First MP, told Newshub his officials are working through any potential World Trade Organisation (WTO) implications, to be sure that changing the law to favour the domestic market would not break any pre-existing agreements.
He said it is time for a "new model which places a greater level of control over the export of our raw material", particularly with infrastructure projects being lined up to try and stimulate the economy once the lockdown ends, meaning New Zealand will need plenty of materials.
"I have been the Forestry Minister for two years. I negotiated a carve-out for foreign owners, simplified the process for them in the overseas investment legislation to expand their holdings without too much red tape," Jones said.
The first streamlined Overseas Investment Office (OIO) forestry deal was approved in early 2019 for a Japanese-owned company Oji Fibre Solutions NZ to purchase a forest at Te Kuiti, as the Government wanted to boost its one billion trees programme.
The policy change sparked backlash from the agriculture industry, over fears the Government was selling off land for forestry that could be used for farming, and it led to a heated stand-off between Jones and farmers at a protest at Parliament.
"It is now time for the international log-sellers and the forest owners to show reciprocity and observe an obligation to help regenerate regional New Zealand in a post-COVID environment," Jones told Newshub.
"I have been asking the forestry industry to look inward for two years - they've been slow to do that - so I'm going to do it for them."
Jones said while the forestry sector is closed during the lockdown his officials are exploring what changes need to be made for the next three weeks, because some domestic manufacturers are running out of raw material.
He said the most important thing is to give Te Uru Rākau, or Forestry New Zealand, the necessary regulatory power to intervene in the forestry sector to ensure that raw material is made consistently available to New Zealand businesses.
That could expand the size of New Zealand manufacturing to cope with the unemployment which "may very well peak beyond 300,000 Kiwis", Jones said.
"The Provincial Growth Fund already has copious amounts of money ready and available to invest in expanding wood manufacturing and processing.
"We already have an agenda of wood first and that may require additional regulatory changes to favour wood in residential and commercial construction."
Jones, along with Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford, announced earlier this week that the Government is looking to fund large "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects to boost the economy after the lockdown.
It came as Infrastructure New Zealand CEO Paul Blair warned that 30 percent of construction workers could be laid off over the next three months unless immediate measures are taken to protect them and restart construction.
Fletcher Building has already proposed huge staff pay cuts, angering workers' union E tū, which says thousands of workers would be severely out of pocket for many weeks.
Jones confirmed last month that some money from the $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) he oversees as Regional Economic Development Minister will be redirected towards COVID-19 support.
The Government announced a $12 billion infrastructure project at the end of last year to stimulate the economy, before COVID-19 hit the economy, and that has now been dwarfed by the $25 billion borrowed to respond to the pandemic.