Fix Your Own House, Don’t Sell It
- Murray Horton
The title is a quote from an officer of global union body Public Services International when s/he met with Nigerian government leaders in 2011 to advise them not to privatise the State electricity company. But it has global relevance, and is particularly relevant to New Zealand right now, where we have a Government hellbent on going down the tired old dead end road of privatising public assets. Except that we’re not talking about “your own house” but “our own home”. Both Labour and National governments have pursued this bankrupt policy since the 1980s – and aren’t we all much better off as a result? Depends who you define as “we”. Certainly transnational corporations (TNCs) and their collaborators in NZ Big Business are better off, because they ended up owning them. The likes of big sharebroking firms did (and do) very nicely out of clipping the ticket at every stage of the sale process. But, as for the “99%” of the New Zealand people, things haven’t improved as a result of those sales; indeed, in many cases, they have become appreciably worse.
Watchdog hasn’t covered the State-Owned Enterprises sales issue since mid-2012, because it (the issue, not Watchdog) went into hiatus over the summer while the courts ruled on the Maori Council’s customary water rights claim. That was duly dismissed in early 2013 and the Government proceeded, with indecent haste, to resume the process of flogging off 49% of Mighty River Power, the first one on the auction block. So, several noteworthy things have happened since we last wrote about this subject. Obviously, the whole Maori water rights claim for one; the pre-registration process by which several hundred thousand people expressed interest in buying Mighty River Power shares once it is floated (this is being written before the actual float); almost simultaneously with that, the Keep Our Assets petition calling for a referendum on the sales policy was presented to Parliament; in early 2013 Solid Energy, one of the five SOES originally slated to be 49% sold, definitely didn’t float but spectacularly sank, with the loss of hundreds of jobs and hundreds of millions of taxpayer’s dollars (so that one’s off the shopping list, indefinitely); and last, but absolutely not least, our old mates Rio Tinto tried some very crude blackmail tactics to try to extort an even lower power price out of Meridian (one of the three power generation SOEs slated to be sold) for its Bluff aluminium smelter; not to mention holding out for a direct subsidy from the Government, in addition to the indirect one it has had for the past 40 years via the country’s cheapest, and most secret, power price. Rio Tinto routinely threatens to close down its smelter when it doesn’t get its own way or wants more perks from its client Government (whether National or Labour), knowing that this time that threat would drive down the attractiveness of Meridian as a saleable asset and thus threaten the raison d’être of the Government’s assets sale policy, which is the jewel in its $2 Shop plastic crown. Let’s take a look at these developments.
The Maori Council’s unsuccessful legal challenge brought some time but if it had been successful, it certainly would not have been the solution to the problem of privatising publicly owned assets. If Maori succeeded in a claim of customary rights over water then, yes, it would theoretically secure New Zealand ownership. But the Government would simply offer a sweetener in the form of some degree of ownership of the water-using asset being privatised (indeed, a $65 million pool of Mighty River Power shares was set aside for iwi, comprising a princely 1.8% of the total). Private ownership for private profit of a previously publicly-owned asset is equally reprehensible whether the new owners are white or brown. The Maori corporate elite, known as the Brown Table, have proved themselves very adept at playing the capitalist game. Look no further than Ngai Tahu and Tainui. And they have no qualms in working with transnational corporations for mutual profit, as evidenced in the disgraceful joint ventures between iwi and foreign fishing companies that depend on life threatening, slave labour conditions for their crews in order to plunder the sea.
SOEs Already Belong To “Mum And Dad”
The Government and its media apologists have made much of the fact that several hundred thousand people pre-registered to express interest in getting Mighty River Power shares. This was trumpeted as vindicating the policy of giving preference to “mum and dad” investors. So desperate was the Government to entice “mums and dads” that it offered them bonus shares in a loyalty scheme, a sort of gigantic version of Fly Buys (perhaps it should called the Fly By Night scheme). But it doesn’t make any difference – privatisation of public assets is wrong, regardless of whether the new owners are transnational corporations, local Big Business (pakeha or Maori) or “mum and dad” (ditto). People who have been quoted as saying that they want to own shares in order to keep some of Mighty River Power in New Zealand ownership are being naïve and/or disingenuous. No matter how much Key and English and co tart it up, the central, glaringly obvious fact is that “mum and dad” already own these SOEs, and all other public assets, because that’s what public ownership is. It means ownership by the public. It’s not very difficult to work out; you don’t need a Master of Business Administration degree from Harvard. The Government is brazenly stealing public assets - all sugar coated as “partial privatisation” or “the mixed ownership model”, because it is only stealing 49% of them - and laughing in our faces by urging us to buy back a little bit of this stolen property in the form of shares. Forget about Nigerian scams; this is the much worse New Zealand scam.
We have paid for them by our taxes, why should we be expected to pay for them again by buying a few shares in them and diluting our ownership to the status of a minority shareholder? What happens if one of these privatised companies goes bust? Mind you, Solid Energy decided to jump the gun and go bust before being privatised, primarily because it made the fatal mistake of believing its own corporate hogwash and paid the price, leaving “mum and dad” taxpayers (as opposed to “mum and dad” investors) to pick up the bill. Bill English has stressed that a partly privatised Mighty River Power is not Government guaranteed. The obvious fact is that, in the share market, there are always highs and lows, winners and losers. So, in the event that one of them goes bust, mum and dad will go to the back of the queue as unsecured creditors, just as happened with the shonky finance companies that toppled like dominos. And mum and dad will be left with nothing, exactly as they were by the finance companies. Isn’t that a great bargain!
It’s so simple that even a Treasury official or a Cabinet Minister could understand it – which is why they’re going to such lengths to disguise that fact, to pull the wool over our eyes and fleece the sheep while they’re at it. We are being dazzled by expensive and glossy advertising persuading us that it is all for our own good to be deprived of what is ours and then spend our own money to buy back a little bit of our own stolen property. The purpose of this campaign to sell us 24 carat bullshit is to persuade us to “look over there while we pick your pocket”.
How many previously privatised public assets have ended up being controlled, let alone owned, by “mums and dads”? Not one. The original and biggest batch, hocked off or simply given away in the casino capitalism of the 1980s and 90s, became the profitable playthings of transnational corporations (TNCs) and their local collaborators in New Zealand Big Business. Auckland Airport doesn’t belong to “mums and dads” despite its 1998 share float being nominally targeted at them. When some community-owned electricity retailers issued shares to their customers in the 1990s, as part of the so-called “electricity reforms”, those “mums and dads” were targeted by representatives of foreign and local Big Business making them an offer they couldn’t refuse for their paltry parcels of shares. Within a very short period of time those publicly-owned assets had fallen into corporate ownership. These electricity generating SOEs – Mighty River Power, Meridian and Genesis– will go the same way.
Key makes the facile claim that restricting private ownership to 49% provides some sort of protection. Crap! Ever since 1973 the Overseas Investment Act has defined a foreign-owned or controlled company as one with more than 24.9% foreign shareholding. It doesn’t matter whether that percentage is held by one or many foreign owners; if it totals anything higher than 24.9%, it is recognised as a foreign company. In other words Key is talking about accepting a level of private, inevitably foreign, ownership which is double the legal definition of a foreign company. Even in the unlikely event that these SOEs do end up in continued New Zealand ownership or, in the unlikeliest event that they do end up being owned by “mum and dads”, that doesn’t make it right. It would still be the privatisation of what is rightfully public; the expropriation of the common wealth for private profit.
Price Hikes & Profiteering
What will these new TNC owners do to recoup their outlay? It’s a sure bet that the new owners of the power companies will jack up power prices to their captive customers (who can’t “pass it on”). We’ve already seen this with the Council-owned power companies that the previous National government forced to be sold in the 1990s. For example, see the 1999 Roger Award Judges’ Report (which is in Watchdog 93, April 2000, http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/93/1trans.htm) It details the lamentable record of that year’s Roger Award winner, Canadian TNC TransAlta, which bought Christchurch’s Council–owned Southpower (among others), stuffed up big time and within a very short period of time had totally disappeared from the country. If you want other examples of previous privatisations which went disastrously wrong and which had to be renationalised, the Railways and Air New Zealand will do just nicely (and now that the taxpayer has bailed out Air New Zealand, this Government wants to flog it off again).
Look no further than Telecom, whose then American owners bled it dry in the 90s, recouping their $4.25 billion purchase price several times over within just a few years. It prioritised profits and dividends to shareholders before reinvestment, leaving NZ lagging behind the rest of the developed world in telecommunications infrastructure. Actually, NZ is also lagging behind the developing world. In recent years I chanced across a couple of Filipino lines technicians who told me how surprised they were to find themselves working on copper wires in a First World country – they were used to fibre optic cables in Manila. So the Government is subsidising Chorus, which was split off from Telecom, in the rollout of the $1.5 billion ultra-fast broadband (UFB) project, which does involve installing fibre optics. For this reason, Telecom was a finalist in the 2011 Roger Award. The Judges’ Report (http://canterbury.cyberplace.co.nz/community/CAFCA/publications/Roger/Roger2011.pdf) quotes the nominator: “Telecom has made mega profits out of NZ for two decades now and has shamefully reinvested very little of that back into its NZ telecommunications business, preferring to enrich its foreign owners and biggest shareholders with dividends instead. With the money it has made out of this country it could have paid for the UFB scheme several times over out of its own profits, without any taxpayers’ money having to be involved. It is an indictment of Telecom - past and present - that it instead chooses to rely on a Government subsidy to fund such an essential part of any modern country’s telecommunications infrastructure”.
It must also be reiterated that if and when New Zealand signs up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA, which is being negotiated in secret), transnational corporate domination will be embedded into the very core of the economy and politics. We have already had a little foretaste of this in the shape of the threats from the tobacco and booze TNCs to sue NZ under existing trade and investment agreements because they don’t like proposed law changes that threaten their profits. Such international legal action by the tobacco TNCs is already a reality in Australia (they’re fighting that Government’s move that cigarettes will only be allowed to be sold in plain packaging, which is what is also proposed here). Things will only get worse under the TPPA if it comes to pass. See the articles on the TPPA by Bill Rosenberg and Mary Ellen O’Connor elsewhere in this issue.
It’s All About Ideology
There are no sound economic reasons for selling these SOEs, and any others that may be also being eyed up for sale. Even Finance Minister Bill English has admitted that the Government’s claim that the sales will bring in $5-7 billion “was not our best guess, it’s just a guess”. And that figure is irrelevant now that Solid Energy is off the shopping list, being basically worthless at present; not to mention Rio Tinto having thrown a spanner into Meridian’s works with its latest threat to close the Bluff smelter, leading to the market being flooded with surplus electricity. As in the past, the reason cited for selling assets is to help to pay off public debt. But the Government can borrow money at cheaper rates than the private sector, so why is that a worry? It’s the equivalent of selling your house to pay off the mortgage. You’ve cleared your debt, but you’ve no longer got your prime asset. More importantly, you no longer own the roof over your head. You have to downsize to being a tenant – everyone knows who calls the shots in the landlord/tenant relationship. I’ve been both a tenant and a homeowner, and I know which one I prefer. That’s the path Key and co is setting us onto – becoming tenants in our own home. There is an irony in that because it’s only two to three years ago, in relation to public disquiet about the systematic sale of rural land to foreign owners, that Key himself said that he didn’t want to see New Zealanders become tenants in our own country. Well, he’s doing everything possible to bring that about.
There is an inherent contradiction in the economic justification offered for selling assets – they’re being put on the market because they’re attractive to private owners, TNCs in particular. Why? Because they’re profitable; they’re not distressed assets being offered at a bankruptcy sale. To whom do they deliver those profits at present? The Government: on behalf of their owners, the New Zealand people. So the Government is blithely waving goodbye to that guaranteed income stream of hundreds of millions of dollars per year (well, at least, to 49% of that income stream).
Only a certain amount of weight should be attached to the economic argument for retaining the SOEs. Indeed, by concentrating on that aspect, the whole debate can be diverted down a slippery slope. The emphasis should not be on how profitable they are or aren’t, because that accepts the validity of them having been set up as SOEs in the first place, by the 1984-90 Labour government, as one of the central pillars of Rogernomics (and Labour’s 2011 election policy of opposing the privatisation of these SOEs did not propose any change in their status from profit-oriented State-owned businesses).
Who said this? "I am not sure we were right to use the argument that we should privatise to quit debt. We knew it was a poor argument but we probably felt it was the easiest to use politically". Answer – none other than Sir Roger Douglas, in a book praising the sale of State forests ("Out Of The Woods"; Reg Birchfield and Ian Grant; 1993). So there you have it, from the horse’s mouth, or maybe from the other end. The only explanation for why the Government is adopting this policy is ideological. And it is truly nothing more complicated than that – the wilfully blind zealous belief of both major parties, since the 1980s, that public is bad and private is good.
What is needed instead is a political commitment that State-owned companies supplying an essential service actually be a public service rather than profit-obsessed corporations, which are publicly owned whilst exhibiting all the worst characteristics of privately owned Big Business corporations. That requires a political decision to change the business model of those and other State-Owned Enterprises from profit to service. Now there’s a scary, radical concept – but it was the status quo in NZ until the 1980s and 90s. The country’s electricity system existed to ensure nationwide, coordinated, uninterrupted supply of an essential service, at cost.
These SOES are certainly not the only public assets being lined up for privatisation, they are only the beginning. The process is underway of partly hocking off ACC’s lucrative work account (but not the rest of the accident compensation cases handled by ACC, such as at home or on the sports field) to the insurance TNCs (the very same insurance TNCs that are making such a great job of Christchurch’s earthquake recovery and rebuild). Private prisons operated by TNCs are also a reality; the country’s first private toll road is operating. Private public partnerships (PPPs) are being touted as the model for major sectors such as education infrastructure (but not content); social housing; and health. Water is a very lucrative little earner that the TNCs want to tap into (pun intended). The Government has slashed funding to the Department of Conservation, forcing major job losses and telling it to form partnerships with Big Business in order to function. It is privatisation in all its various guises: overt, by stealth, partial, or in partnership. It is the opposite of nationalisation – this is expropriation from the public sector for private profit. Or, to put it more succinctly: theft.
Let The “Too Big To Fail” Smelter Fail
“Too big to fail” was the mantra of the robber banks and other transnational financial sharks during the Global Financial Crisis, which remains ongoing. This left the victims to pay for the costs of the crime, while the corporate criminals walked away scotfree and kept their loot. The people of Cyprus are the latest to experience firsthand just how this works. In this country, Rio Tinto’s Bluff aluminium smelter was decades ahead of the fashion. Actually, it is a transnational corporation with a lot in common with North Korea, in that every time it feels it is not getting the respect it deserves, or that it is not getting its own way, it issues melodramatic threats. Every time that Rio Tinto feels that its charmed existence in New Zealand is going to become less cushy, it threatens to pull the plug, close the smelter and walk away. It does so in the knowledge that it has always been deemed “too big to fail” by the succession of Governments, both National and Labour, that it has effortlessly outmanoeuvred for 50 years. The best history of the smelter’s early years, when the company was known as Comalco, is in CAFCINZ’s own wonderful Comalco comic “The Amazing Adventures Of Power Junky: The True Story Of Comalco In NZ” (Pete Lusk & Ron Currie, 1977, updated 1982), online at http://www.historicalwatchdog.blogspot.co.nz/2009/01/comalco-comic.html. Nothing much has changed!
This time it is trying it on as a tactic to try to pressure Meridian over its power price contract, on which the ink is barely dry and which only took effect in January 2013. CAFCA calls Rio Tinto’s bluff (pun intended). Stop crying wolf, stop using your New Zealand workers as disposable pawns in your cynical game, stop holding Southland and the country to ransom. Go ahead and close the smelter and bugger off. See if we care, the country will be much better off without you. The smelter is the country’s single biggest user of electricity, consuming more than 13% of the total, 24/7 for more than 40 years. It pays a top secret super cheap price that is not available for any other user and all it does is export electricity from NZ in the form of alumina, while being subsidised by all other electricity users. The smelter is the textbook example of corporate welfare in New Zealand.
NZ’s Biggest Bludger
How ironic that Rio Tinto rejected the Government’s offer of a short term subsidy. It wanted a long term one, preferably indefinitely. Presumably, this was to be in addition to the massive taxpayer subsidy it has been receiving continuously for 50 years, in the form of the Manapouri power station built with public money for its exclusive use (and let’s never forget that 16 men died building that); and the cheapest and most secret power price rate in the country bar none. Not good enough apparently, it still wants more.
Rio Tinto won the 2011 Roger Award for the Worst Transnational Corporation Operating In Aotearoa/New Zealand (and was runner up in both 2009 and 08). It was nominated for lobbying two Governments “over several years to secure excessive allocations of free emissions units under the NZ Emissions Trading Scheme”. The Roger Award judges agreed, concluding: “It appears therefore, that the New Zealand taxpayer is subsidising a transnational corporate rort of the emissions trading scheme… The significance of this stance cannot be underestimated; a major transnational player within New Zealand materially benefits from its non-compliance with a strategy to reduce global climate change and its ecological effects”.
The Judges’ Report concluded that the company has a 50 year history of “suborning, blackmailing and conning successive New Zealand governments into paying massive subsidies on the smelter’s electricity; dodging tax, and running a brilliantly effective PR machine to present a friendly, socially responsible and thoroughly greenwashed face to the media and the public. Its milking of the Emissions Trading Scheme is entirely in character”. The extremely detailed Financial Analysis revealed that the smelter’s claimed benefits to NZ, namely annual export earnings of “around $1 billion” are, in fact, overstated by four fifths. In short, it is a liability to New Zealand, not an asset. The full, damning, 2011 Roger Award Judges’ Report can be read at http://canterbury.cyberplace.co.nz/community/CAFCA/publications/Roger/Roger2011.pdf
Rio Tinto was, once again, a finalist in the 2012 Roger Award, and was adjudged equal runner up. The judges said (the full Judges’ Report can be read online at http://canterbury.cyberplace.co.nz/community/CAFCA/publications/Roger/Roger2012.pdf ): “It regularly crops up near the head of this list of villains, is the archetype of the bullying transnational, riding roughshod over nation State and community. As winner of the previous Roger Award, the 2011 Judges’ Report undertook a detailed analysis, which it is unnecessary to repeat. However, the broad outlines need to be drawn. In the 1960s, Tiwai Point was chosen as the location for an aluminium smelter for a number of reasons. Aluminium smelting requires a large and very reliable power source to continually supply electricity to reduction cells, and Tiwai Point's proximity to the then proposed Manapouri Power Station made it an attractive location. In addition, Tiwai Point was close to the deep sea port of Bluff and the well-established infrastructure of the city of Invercargill. The smelter commenced operations in 1971.
“It did a deal with the Government, agreeing to buy a lot of electricity (13.67% of the national output) in return for setting up in a remote, industrially underdeveloped part of the country. It justified the building of a large hydro scheme. Almost – for it would only do so if the electricity was cheap. What it pays has never been revealed. Once the deal was done, it had us by the balls and has continued to squeeze ever since. It is corporate welfarism, but somehow doesn’t attract the same vindictiveness as the sickness beneficiary. Any move to scale back the level of welfare leads to threat of closure and job losses and the Government and regional powers that be, shaking in their boots. Funny, how the moving of a good proportion of our skilled population overseas doesn’t result in the same level of panic. The Emissions Trading Scheme led to a real bluff, resulting in it being awarded surplus carbon credits which it could sell and consequently make a profit out of being a major polluter.
“In 2012, it cried wolf because of the drop in world aluminium prices and tried to insist on rewriting its’ contract with Meridian (which already had some slack in terms of world aluminium prices), sacked some workers and once again threatened to close. According to its Website, NZ Aluminium Smelters contributes $506 million to the Southland economy (13.5% of Southland's Gross Domestic Product), 2,400 full time equivalent jobs and $1,700 million in Southland regional sales, so locals are reluctant to see it go. And if it did leave there’d be a power surplus and the price would drop to the ordinary consumer. How dreadful.
“In the midst of this ruckus, former Green Party Co-Leader, Jeannette Fitzsimons, came up with a challenge to TINA (There Is No Alternative). If the business is so unprofitable, she suggested, why doesn’t the NZ government buy it at a low price, shut down the old plant and use it for parts, keep the new plant going and establish local manufacturing based on the aluminium supply available? Use the surplus power to give everyone a cheap base supply, any usage past this base to be exponentially charged in order to encourage power saving. What is this? Rational, environmentally sustainable State planning? A challenge to TINA? Forget it. Bad marks all round. We’ll see Rio Tinto back next year”.
What about the people who work for the smelter, directly or indirectly? Indisputably, the smelter closing would have a negative impact on Invercargill and Southland. But let’s keep a sense of proportion – in disaster terms it doesn’t compete with Christchurch having lost 185 lives, 50,000 jobs, and sustained $30 billion worth of damage in a matter of seconds on February 22, 2011. If Christchurch can get back in the saddle after that, Invercargill should be able to handle the smelter closure and its attendant job losses. Contractually, the closure process and site remediation has to take several years. As a plus, the city will be able to shake off its unhealthily dependent situation as a company town with its local government at the beck and call of this transnational bludger.
The tobacco industry used to employ a lot of people here, but that was deemed to be no longer in the public interest. Lacing lollywater with booze and selling it to kids supports a lot of jobs too but there’s plenty of public demand to get rid of that particular industry as well. The P industry provides an income for thousands of people too, but we don’t hear any demand for that insidious trade to be kept going to keep them in a job. History is full of examples of horrible industries that kept people in jobs (such as the slave trade) but which were banned and/or abolished for the greater good. This smelter constitutes a crime against the people of New Zealand and has done for its entire existence. In the national interest, it must be closed and the sooner the better.
It would be a great bonus to have 13% of the country’s electricity suddenly available and no longer committed to one smelter. There would no excuse for the moneygrabbing power companies not to cut their prices (we’ve been falsely promised lower power prices since the “electricity reforms” of the 1990s). And, we’re told, it would drive down Meridian’s attractiveness to would be buyers as part of the Government’s assets sale process. Indeed the Mighty River Power prospectus explicitly includes this, among the risks for investors: "If New Zealand Aluminium Smelters (majority-owned by Rio Tinto) makes a further significant reduction in electricity consumption, whether as a result of the closure of the smelter following any review or for any other reason, the resultant drop in demand could lead to sustained reduction in electricity prices in general" (www.stuff.co.nz 5/4/13, “Mighty River risk tied to Tiwai Point”). How ironic that the selfishness and ruthlessness of one transnational corporation could bugger up the plans to flog off more of our public assets to transnational corporations.
And all is far from lost in the battle against those asset sales. A petition with nearly 400,000 signatures has been presented to Parliament in 2013, calling for a referendum on them. This was a very impressive achievement, the culmination of a major campaign in which CAFCA played its modest part. But the vote will not be held until after the Mighty River Power share float, and possibly that of one more power SOE. Bill English has expressed a desire to flog off at least two of them, if not all three, in 2013. The Government wants to present voters with a fait accompli long before the 2014 election rolls around. The Government has also publicly belittled the petition and its signatories, pointing out that it is not legally bound by the outcome of the referendum (such citizens’ initiated referenda are indicative only, not binding, unlike the referendum which brought in the MMP voting system), and intends to ignore it. This is entirely in character with a Government that has openly expressed contempt for democracy – this is the Government that sacked Canterbury’s regional council, ECan, in 2010, promising to restore it for the 2013 local body election, but then announced that it will remain unelected until at least 2016. *Since this was written, the Clerk of the House has rejected the petition, declaring approximately 100,000 of its signatories to be invalid. This means that the organisers have two months to come up with an additional 16,000 valid signatories, which also have to be authenticated by the Clerk.
So, more than a referendum is needed. The campaign to keep our assets also needs the parliament of the streets. There have been marches and other protest actions throughout this whole process, and they need to continue and intensify (not only at the national level, but here in Christchurch there is a very real threat of the Government, in cahoots with Big Business, forcing the City Council to sell off its extensive portfolio of publicly-owned assets, both trading companies and social assets – the Christchurch City Council is the second biggest landlord in the country – under the excuse of paying for the earthquake rebuild. CAFCA is part of Keep Our Assets Christchurch and I am its Convenor, contactable at email@example.com www.koa.org.nz).
Government Fear Protests Against TNCs
The Government views protests the same way it views democracy – as an impediment to the ability of transnational corporations to smoothly go about their business of enrichment and empowerment. This attitude was most recently illustrated by the March 2013 announcement by Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges that: "’The Government is proposing stronger measures to protect offshore petroleum and minerals activity from unlawful interference’…Explaining the Government's decision, Bridges points to recent attempts to ‘seriously disrupt lawful mining and related activities’. Such actions, says the Minister, ‘impose significant costs on companies carrying out legitimate activities under permits, and present very serious health hazards and safety risks’. Those ‘recent activities’ no doubt refer to the successful 2012 campaign by Greenpeace and a local Maori organisation, Te Whanau a Apanui, to disrupt and dissuade the giant, State-owned Brazilian energy company, Petrobras, from continuing its deep-sea oil prospecting in the Raukumara Basin off East Cape. The most effective protest action of the Greenpeace/Te Whanau a Apanui Campaign involved a small flotilla of seven boats sailing into Petrobras' prospecting zone and taking up positions around its large survey vessel, the Ocean Explorer. When a local Maori fisherman, Elvis Teddy, steered his own vessel, the San Pietro, across the Ocean Explorer's path, dropping buoys and long-lines, the National-led Government authorised Police and New Zealand Defence Force naval units to move in and arrest him. To the Government's dismay, the charges against Teddy were later dropped. The court declined jurisdiction because the protest action took place outside New Zealand's territorial limit of 12 nautical miles. Earlier this year, on January 13, Petrobras announced it was pulling out of New Zealand. Bridges' ‘stronger measures’ are designed to prevent any further protest interventions along the lines of those developed by Greenpeace/Te Whanau a Apanui… Future protest groups face jail sentences and massive fines if they violate a ‘notified minimum non-interference distance’ of up to 500 metres. What just happened here?... Now, consider the State's role in this classic standoff. ..From the outset, it has given preference to market over non-market interests….Thwarted by the court's refusal to punish the behaviour of the protest flotilla, the National-led Government sets about equipping the State with new, quite draconian, powers to protect any future oil prospecting multinational corporations from the physical obstruction (and attendant publicity) of Greenpeace's ‘Stop Deep Sea Oil’ protest campaign. It will soon be perfectly lawful to deploy the New Zealand armed forces to protect and defend not the victims of war or natural disaster but vast, privately owned corporations whose profit-seeking activities threaten both the New Zealand environment and economy. Whose freedom is the Government protecting here? The market's, or our own? (Press, 2/4/13, “Govt pours oil on protest waters”, Chris Trotter, http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/columnists/chris-trotter/8495996/Govt-pours-oil-on-protest-waters).
I would have thought that the answer was pretty obvious, Chris, and pretty much the same as it has been throughout the term of this Government. But at least we know where we stand with the Tories, they’ll unapologetically stab us in the front, as opposed to those who prefer to stab us in the back. So, their response to protest that actually has an effect and damages the interests of the State, and is then not punished by those annoyingly uncooperative courts, is to swiftly change the law to try and prevent being embarrassed again. It happened after the Waihopai Domebusters were acquitted of deflating the spy base dome by a Wellington jury in 2010, and it’s happened again with the courts not punishing the offshore protest by greenies and Maori against oil exploration transnationals. That’s good; it shows that the Government fears the power of protest, of an informed, politicised and energised population that is not prepared to sit idly by while our country is sold off from under us. That’s why we need to carry on the fight to keep our assets, because we are many and they are few.