New Zealand to world: entrepreneurs wanted

''Give me your energetic, your rich, your strong individualists. . . .'' That revision of the poem on America's Statue of Liberty might be placed in New Zealand on a construction crane, an offshore drilling rig, or a tourist hotel.

For about three years, New Zealand has quietly been seeking people from abroad with business know-how and ample financing to move here. So far, about 100 applications for permanent residency under the government's ''entrepreneur policy'' have been approved, with an ever-increasing number under consideration.

''That's an astonishing turnaround,'' says Peter Stewart, editor of the nation's leading weekly publication, the New Zealander Listener.

News about the entrepreneur program had been suppressed until this year, when the New Zealand Chamber of Commerce, an advocate of the policy from the outset, publicly called for an accounting.

Immigration officials won't disclose names of the accepted applicants, but they do say that a majority of them came from the United States, Britain, West Germany, and the Netherlands, with lesser numbers from Switzerland, Sweden, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

Confidence in New Zealand's future was the principal reason they applied, it is said.

The migrant entrepreneurs are said to have brought as little as $50,000 and as much as $2.5 million with them, the median put at about $250,000. But capital was not the government's main criteria for acceptance; expertise and the motive to actively work at their businesses were.

Although the Listener is published by the government-controlled New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Mr. Stewart says he sees the entrepreneur policy as a sign of the times, an effort to woo immigrants who won't make great demands on the country's social services. ''We've made things so good for people with our social programs, we don't want to have to pay out for newcomers,'' he explains.

Stewart goes on to say: ''New Zealanders are suspicious of the 'big scheme' philosophy, but we need more industry to be able to compete in international trade and continue building self-sufficiency. Perhaps these entrepreneurs can help along those lines.

''There had long been a full-employment policy here, and it worked. Now we have unemployment that is considered catastrophic, in the 6-to-7 percent range. That may be acceptable elsewhere, but for our 1.2 million work force it is not.

''Actually, national concern over this began building when we started our recession in 1975 with only 3,750 people unemployed.''

Not everyone hails the entrepreneur policy. E. E. Isbey, a member of Parliament from the minority Labour Party, for instance, has called it ''a secret and selective policy for the rich. It's discriminatory against people with lesser incomes who have been refused entry.''

Mr. Isbey says the ruling National Party should concentrate on trying to deter the loss of skilled workers instead of on ''a handful of millionaires.''

He says New Zealand had a net migration loss of more than 145,000 people between April 1976 and April 1981, many in critical occupations. ''For example, there was a net loss of nearly 19,000 in the professional, technical, and related workers groupings those five years,'' he says.

And this, he says, cost taxpayers millions of dollars, weighed against the ''average education and upbringing cost to the country for a person reaching earning capacity.''

Still, the official government position is that a skilled and in-place labor force is one of New Zealand's greatest assets. Indeed, there are those who predict Australian manufacturers will increasingly relocate to New Zealand, because of better wage rates and labor stability.

''We were once a very united people, but now we are split between rural and urban,'' Stewart says. ''With just 3.1 million people, differences become marked indeed.''

''We have to make some firm but careful decisions about just where we are going,'' he adds, ''to force government philosophy instead of letting a few in power dictate to us. What's needed is a national debate to formulate public consensus on what our priorities should be.

''That doesn't seem particularly appealing to enough of those in power to bring it about, so it is up to the media to continue encouraging it, although some will surely see that as being anti-government.''

A true national debate, Stewart adds, would be a stablizing force rather than a disruptive one.

''We've lost engineers, draftsmen, other skilled people to other countries,'' he notes. ''Part of that may be due to New Zealanders' trait of moving about a lot. But a big part of it might also be that those people need to feel more a part of our national destiny.

''Newly arrived entrepreneurs may help build the employment and economic bases, but it is up to those of us who have long been here to take the future into our own hands.

''This is an exciting time to be in New Zealand. Change is inevitable. The challenge of preparing for it - indeed, of helping formulate it - is intriguing.''

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