Tobacco Merchant Of Death
- by Murray Horton
The 2008 Roger Award for the Worst Transnational Corporation Operating in Aotearoa/New Zealand was won by British American Tobacco NZ Ltd (BAT); the runner up was Rio Tinto Aluminium NZ Ltd (nominated under its former and better known name of Comalco); the Accomplice Award was won by Business New Zealand and its Chief Executive Officer, Phil O’Reilly. Although BAT has been a finalist several times and even a runner up in the Roger Award’s dozen years of existence, this is the first time that it’s won (and personally speaking, I can’t think of a more deserving winner).
The Judges’ Statement on BATNZ says : “Its product kills 5,000 people every year and ruins the lives of tens of thousands. It perennially refuses to take responsibility for the social and economic consequences of its activity, while maintaining a major public relations effort to subvert the efforts of the Government to reduce cigarette consumption”. It is “a conspicuously bad corporate citizen”. The Financial Analysis reveals that BAT NZ’s 2007 profit after tax was a staggering 81% on opening shareholders’ funds, and a questionable borrowing and reinvestment arrangement with other BAT companies outside NZ that allows BAT to reduce its NZ income tax liability by $10 million per year, while hypocritically posturing as a socially responsible corporation.
Rio Tinto Aluminium was runner up because of its “single act of political intimidation”, threatening to close the Bluff smelter if the former Government’s proposed emissions trading scheme went ahead. “Business New Zealand and (CEO) Mr O’Reilly merit an Accomplice Award for their major PR contribution to sustaining the New Zealand government’s spineless record on non-regulation of monopolies and failure to control foreign investments into key sectors of the local economy”. The full Judges’ Statement, Judges’ Report and Financial Analysis of BAT is enclosed with this Watchdog as a separate insert, plus they can all be read online at http://canterbury.cyberplace.co.nz/community/CAFCA/publications/Roger/Roger2008.pdf.
The winners were announced at an event in Auckland in March 2009, the first time it had been held in Auckland for three years. It was very well organised by Lynda Boyd, a (long distance) CAFCA committee member who is spending several years in Auckland while at university there, and hosted by Global Peace and Justice Auckland as one of its monthly meetings. At least 60 people crammed into a hot and humid room at the Trade Union Centre, including former Roger judges, a couple of Green MPs, and CAFCA members and supporters from Auckland and other parts of the country. I spoke on behalf of the organisers; Chief Judge Geoff Bertram, from Wellington, announced the winners; Ben Youdan of Action on Smoking in Health (ASH) spoke and showed a specially prepared and very good Powerpoint on BATNZ (which is online at http://canterbury.cyberplace.co.nz/community/CAFCA/publications/Roger/ASHpresentation.pdf); an uncannily relevant 1980s’ episode of the classic British TV comedy series “Yes Prime Minister” was screened to uproarious laughter; and music was provided by a couple of guys calling themselves Electric Car (they explained that only two of the four “wheels” could make it that night). It was a great night, I’ve always enjoyed the Roger events and it’s great to see that people in Auckland (and Wellington and Dunedin, where the event has also been held in the past) have a solid sense of ownership of the Roger Award, despite the fact that it’s organised out of Christchurch. It has become a national institution which goes from strength to strength. That was reflected, once again, in the very good mainstream media coverage which the 2008 Roger got, featuring in newspapers and on radio stations and Websites up and down the country.
Roger Award Is Now More Relevant Than Ever
So now we look forward to the next one. Once again we need to find some new judges, as a number have retired after doing it for several years, including Geoff Bertram, who is moving overseas (it is worth emphasising the point that the judges do it for absolutely no reward and give up part of their summer holiday period to do it. In the case of Geoff Bertram, he also paid his own way to and from the Auckland event, declining CAFCA’s offer to pay his fare). I conclude with an extract from my speech to the event, to make a point that has to be made.
“I must acknowledge the fact that we are living in very unusual times. I am, of course, referring to the global economic crisis, the recession (under no circumstances are we allowed to call it a depression).The Roger Award is for the worst transnational corporation operating in Aotearoa/New Zealand in the year in question. So it is awarded for behaviour that is truly, outstandingly bad, the worst of excesses of transnational corporate capitalism, economic imperialism. In light of the times in which we are currently living, I need to clarify one aspect that is different from when all previous Roger Award winners were announced – I don’t want to give the impression that if ‘a few bad apples’ cleaned up their act (or went out of business, which is quite possible in this present crisis), then all would be well. No, this is a fundamental systemic crisis of capitalism, a system which is both inherently unstable and criminal; a system which carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. I don’t subscribe to the view that we are witnessing the collapse of capitalism. I happen to agree with my old mate Chairman Mao who said ‘if you don’t hit it, then it won’t fall’, but that’s a whole different subject. This is the biggest global crisis of capitalism since the 1930s’ Depression and what is different, under globalisation where everything and everyone is interconnected, is the breathtaking speed with which it has all fallen apart. When the last Roger Award event was held in Christchurch (in March 2008), nobody would have anticipated that quite so many chickens would have come home to roost quite so soon.
“So, if the whole economic and political system under which we live is currently being demonstrated to be fatally flawed and bad for the health of the planet and all its inhabitants, is there any point in continuing to have something like the Roger Award? The answer is yes, because the Roger is about evidence and examples. Every year for the past dozen years it has skewered the lies and bullshit that are sold to us on a daily basis (if it’s done by other people, it’s called propaganda; but if it’s done by ‘our side’, it’s just the way things are). The Roger Award is basically a New Zealand people’s court which hears evidence presented to it by ordinary New Zealanders about the specific corporate crimes committed by specific transnational corporations in a given year. It’s not about rhetoric and slogans, but facts and figures. The Roger fulfils an invaluable role in proving, time and time again, just why it is such a bad thing to have allowed our country to have been colonised by transnational corporations. And it will continue to be needed in the future. Unstable capitalism goes through endless booms and busts. So, inevitably, the global economy will come out of this slump (I just hope, for all our sakes, that we don’t have to go through the fascism and world war that led to the ending of the last great depression) and all the present soul searching about capitalism will be put on the back burner and once again we will be told that it is the best possible system. Once again the answer will be ‘bullshit’ and the Roger Award will keep on doing its invaluable national job of demonstrating why that claim is bullshit”.
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