- Jeremy Agar

This Changes Everything
Capitalism Versus The Climate
by Naomi Klein, Allen Lane, 2014
Six Capitals
by Jane Gleeson-White, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2014

In Bangladesh some factories have put nets on their roofs to catch suicide jumpers despairing of conditions in the sweatshops below. Bangladesh is replacing China as a supplier of cheap labour for mass produced exports to people like us. Cheap labour is dirty labour, and it’s tipping the world towards collapse.

We can have a viable planet or we can have capitalism. That’s why Naomi Klein* thinks that the global reach of neo-liberalism has changed everything.  Hers is a vital book, the most persuasive and thorough analysis of how environmental and economic issues interact that I’ve read. Everything has changed because the world’s big players can’t be allowed to carry on as they’ve been doing. *See my review of Klein’s important book “The Shock Doctrine” in Watchdog 117, April 2008,

Klein’s central point is that little is being done to slow climate change because effective action would mean that the big global corporations who depend on the dirt and misery of garment workers in Dhaka and others like them would lose lots. That’s why so much money is expended on denying there’s a problem.


Since about 2007, as a consensus was building that a hotter world was an urgent problem, climate change has become a politically incorrect topic in the US. Klein points out that in that year the Big Three US TV networks carried 147 climate change stories. Even Rupert Murdoch, the far-Right media baron, and Newt Gingrich, the leader of the Republican Right in the Congress, said they wanted action to save the planet. Just three years later the Big Three carried a mere 14 such stories, and the likes of Murdoch and Gingrich knew there was no problem. Over the same three years John Key and Rodney Hide came to the same understanding, Hide declaring that the claim of a warming planet was a “hoax” (see my review of “Dirty Politics”, by Nicky Hager, in Watchdog 137, December 2014,,  for more on how NZ’s government took a lead from US elites. In that same issue I also reviewed “Hot Air”, the documentary by Alister Barry and Abi King-Jones, which laid bare the squalid politics of climate change in NZ).

With less talk about the matter, people’s attention fell off. Over those three years, polls of public opinion in America found that the number of respondents who agreed that climate change was a problem fell from 71% to 51%.

Klein discusses a particularly absurd consequence of the new denialism that played out in her home province of Ontario, Canada. Across a river from Detroit, the traditional hub of the US auto industry, and close to big markets, Ontario has long been integrated into American production, so when the industry tanked during the global financial crisis (GFC), whole towns and suburbs virtually closed down. Innovative minds came up with a Plan B; empty factories could be switched to make solar panels, helping not just to restore jobs but to convert from coal to renewable energy. Local content rules were drawn up to foster confidence in the transition.

It’s not often that we can make towns vibrant and cleaner at the same time, so this was an opportunity that was self-evidently a good idea. Not to the boffins in the World Trade Organisation, where the European Union and Japan successfully appealed against the local content provision, a violation of “free trade” rules.  So the plants in Brantford and Oakville remained idle. This did nothing for Japan or Europe, a local scheme in Canada being no threat to European or Japanese people, and it did nothing to advance policies of either Japan or Europe, whose politicians and populations are as aware of the need for good jobs and clean air as anyone.  If ever there was political-correctness-gone-mad, this was it.

Why then? Possibly the boffins were keen to make sure that the rules were applied so that future measures to create a better planet could not claim a precedent. But there’s a massive hypocrisy involved. Klein’s research shows that the coal industry – yes, that’s the industry the world agrees needs to close down, the one that might have lost a tiny fraction of its sales if Ontario generated solar power – gets something like $US775 billion to $US1 trillion in annual global subsidies.

Some major German cities which had privatised power companies have voted to take them back into public ownership, and not necessarily for ideological reasons. Privatised outfits make more money from dirty energy, and have a vested interest in polluting. Restoring public control is the precondition for switching to clean renewable sources. There’s an economic gain too. Wind, solar and other sustainable providers create around eight times as many jobs as oil and gas. Similarly, public transit creates 31% more jobs than are provided through the obsession with ever more roads.

Klein traces general awareness of impending climate disaster to Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency. In 1965 LBJ’s science advisors reported that man-made climate change could be awful. For a while this could be ignored, but after 1988, she argues, rejection of the evidence became irrational. That was when James Hansen published his results (see my review of Hansen’s “Storms Of My Grandchildren” in Watchdog 124, August 2010, Hansen’s findings remain the basis of our most reliable projections as to the state of the air above us).

A potentially key date was 1992, when the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit was convened to come up with a serious response. Yes, it was agreed, the Earth was getting dangerously hotter and the longer we delay, the harder it will be to rectify. So we’ll try to be good citizens. We all have an interest in a nice globe. It was very upbeat, manna for public relations spinners. The UN added a seemingly offhand postscript: that “measures taken to combat climate change, including unilateral ones, should not constitute … a disguised restriction on international trade”. Kyoto, the next international treaty, had the same proviso.

Governments Don’t Want To Upset Billionaire Corporations

Thanks to the work of people like Jane Kelsey, we can now translate this into English: If any government messes with us by imposing conditions that we claim might restrict us in mining the Earth to make piles of money, we’ll sue. That’s been happening, of course. More common, if less known, is the tendency of governments, anxious to avoid confrontation with billionaire corporations, to let matters slide. Thus we have “two solitudes” - tight rules governing trade and an honour system for the environment.

International agriculture is responsible for between 19% and 29% of all greenhouse gases, a devastating contribution, and one that’s only growing, container traffic having increased by 400% over the last 20 years. Yes, that’s us, and that’s China.  By 2007, when the dairy boom was booming, China was linked to 2/3 of global increases.

Given NZ’s situation, we can’t realistically expect an imminent shift to a more sustainable relationship. Neither does it make sense to blame China for wanting its’ population to enjoy some of the comforts that Westerners take for granted. Solutions need to be broader and subtler – and stronger. In the longer term; the globe needs a huge culture shift, which is what various environmental campaigners have long been saying.

Partnership? Voluntary action? In the real world, corporates and their client states have no intention of reining in the polluters. As Klein points out, the US has made sure that any climate change talk has been removed from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), where a new constitution for global capitalism is being negotiated. That’s the bottom line. Speaking of which, it’s worthy of note that the record profit for a US corporation in a year was the $US45 billion that ExxonMobil extracted in 2012 (but which has been eclipsed by Apple since Klein published).

Oil prices have now dropped, partly because of increased output enabled by fracking, a technique that releases methane, one of the dirtiest gases. Fracking also wastes lots of water, but a Quebec (Canada) ban on the practice was challenged under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Government was sued for expropriation as the ban was said to deny the frackers “fair and equitable treatment”. Quebec was being “arbitrary, capricious and illegal…. with no cognisable public purpose”.

Progressives have not always helped themselves, seldom acting in their own interests in as united and effective a way as the polluters have. With some justice, Klein accuses environmentalists of often behaving as if no issue is more important than theirs. The opposite view, that economic issues are everything, that greenies don’t care about living standards of poorer people, is equally unhelpful. But to illustrate this latter position, Klein reaches back to IF (Izzy) Stone, an American polemicist who died a generation ago. Stone used to complain that environmentalism was a diversion from the real problem, the class struggle.

Class struggle is not a phrase you hear these days. Almost everyone assumes that this is because we have a common interest with the billionaires, that class in the traditional sense as a marker of people’s relationship to the means of production is a false concept. The Right has always thought so, as has most of the Left, and if Izzy Stone was to be reincarnated in contemporary NZ he would be greeted with incomprehension. There’s no risk that environmentalists will not get a hearing from the sort of people who these days are called the “Centre Left”.

Doctrinaire Greens & Reds Both Wrong

Here we come to a vital point. Doctrinaire “greens” and “reds” are both wrong: “The environmental crisis – if conceived sufficiently broadly – neither trumps nor distracts from our most pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency…. The core of the problem comes back to the same inescapable fact that has both blocked climate action and accelerated emissions: all of us are living in the world that neo-liberalism built, even if we happen to be critics of neo-liberalism”.

It is in teasing out the effect of all the “free trading” on our everyday lives that Klein is so engaging. She shows just why it is that, at the same time as the global corporates are coming to chop off the reach of governments to act in the public interest, that we have witnessed all the nervous tics of a once-confident culture in decline. The fads of the last generation’s intellectuals – post-modernism, post-structuralism, deconstruction - were the expression of a neurotic individualism, of clever people who knew that they disliked modernity but weren’t sure why. The culture of neo-liberalism is the culture of the decline of collective ideals. 

As Klein sees matters, neo-liberal narcissism has eroded democracy: “In practice that means that, despite endless griping, tweeting, flash mobbing, and occupying, we collectively lack many of the tools that built and sustained the transformative movements of the past. Our public institutions are disintegrating, while the institutions of the traditional Left – progressive political parties, strong unions, membership-based community service organisations - are fighting for their lives”.

If the world is to be recovered for its 99% (not that we’ve ever had control) a common rational purpose must be a pre-condition. “The fetish for structurelessness, the rebellion against any kind of institutionalisation, is not a luxury today’s transformative movements can afford”.

In the meantime, behind all the flexibility, the rules of neo-liberal trade are inflexible, satisfying a Big Business demand for “certainty”, with swarms of lawyers pinning down precision. For everything and everyone else, uncertainty is to be our lot. Klein discusses how the language that the political and media elites use to talk about climate is vague and unthreatening. We’re told that inaction is the result of a lack of “political will”, but not to worry, “partners” are seeking “solutions”.

In 1992 at Rio the UN found the necessary formula when it was agreed that the global response to climate change merited “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Rich countries, with 20% of the world’s people, have emitted 70% of all pollution, so it’s fair that they subsidise the poorer world. This is never going to be easy to sell to domestic audiences, especially as the major developing economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China – the so-called BRICs – are the source of most current pollution. Klein thinks it unhelpful that the statistics we’re offered count the manufacturing country, not the importing country, so that the rich West looks cleaner than it is.

Klein accepts the common rationale that the rich world’s living standards are based on the Industrial Revolution that has been the source of pollution for about 250 years, so its’ responsibility to do more is not just because we can. It’s very much a moral imperative.

It’s hard to quibble with the logic of this – and were the world’s resources deployed more rationally than they are, we might get somewhere. But here the otherwise scrupulous Klein tips into populist sentimentality. Who ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden? What was the original sin? We’re invited to pin the blame on James Watt, inventor of the steam engine, the villain who apparently expressed the view that “Nature can be conquered if we can but find her weak side”.

We get it. Watt stands in here for all those evil old dead white men we’ve been hearing about for half a century. But spare a thought for the world of 1775, when neither Watt nor anyone else could envisage present threats. Back then Nature had a habit of killing babies and threatening poverty and starvation.

The Diversion Of “Technological Fixes”

More worthy of the prolonged scorn she offers us are Watt’s latter day followers, mega rich men who should know better. There’s something about celebrity billionaires. Outside their competencies they so often fall prey to a naive arrogance. People like Bill Gates and James Cameron are wont to talk about how we could emigrate to Mars or mine Jupiter or mitigate a hotter world by “dimming the Sun”. They’re dangerous in that by insisting that there will always be a technological fix, they do nothing now. Klein seems to most despise Richard Branson. He’s the bloke that keeps appearing on the TV news, grinning as he descends to Earth in various machines. The constant promises to use clean fuel are not backed by action. This striptease is the egotist’s need for self-promotion and a diversion from the reality that he gets rich by keeping on polluting (Branson’s Virgin Galactic is currently promising “private space travel by the end of the year”. This turns out to be an offer that, for $US250, 000 each, 500 passengers can travel in his “mother ship” for three hours. Pointless waste).

Watt would have assumed a balance between the natural and the modified. The billionaires want to cancel Nature. They have to deny the reality of the state of the planet, as otherwise they’d have to admit they’re wrong about neo-liberalism, the ideology that ensures the mess will only worsen.

Klein’s conclusions - when she formulates an answer to the inevitable question – yes, we see the problem, but what can we do? - are stimulating. She has little patience for the individualistic actions that might make us feel virtuous but don’t change the world. We need an economic transformation, because unless neo-liberalism goes, pollution and waste are here to stay. Klein, a Canadian, notes that legal and cultural battles are easier to win than confronting power, an observation that New Zealand’s recent history endorses.

Her analogy – with slavery - is bold, but that’s the degree of difficulty we’re talking about. In pre-Civil War America the percentage of total household assets created by owning slaves was massive; a disincentive to abolition that only war could end. Klein has calculated that the big polluters have as little reason to stop polluting as slave owners had to free their slaves. This is because the loss of wealth caused by leaving carbon in the ground is equivalent to the Confederacy losing free slave labour. Does that mean all coal, from now on? Such mega numbers and impossible time frames risk giving deniers a pretext for “doubt”. Klein is usually more measured than this. The best available estimate, announced since she published, is that 80% of the coal and 30% of the oil needs to be left in the ground if the planet is to remain habitable.

There’s a further difficulty. Slavers were compensated for their losses, and today’s polluters aren’t going to expect less. It’s hard to mesh this likelihood with the principle of the rich world compensating the poor world.

Anyway, as a start, we need a social revolution equivalent to the abolition movement in America. This could begin when “activism becomes an entirely normal activity throughout society – its’ rent payers’ associations, women’s auxiliaries, gardening clubs, neighbourhood assemblies, trade unions, sports team”. To get there, we need to choose the right early policy battles, aiming to change not just laws but patterns of thought. She offers an example. Fighting for a guaranteed minimum income might do more for the environment than a fight for a minimal carbon tax if it engages more people. With more money, workers would be in a better position to say no to dirty jobs and there could be a new relationship between the reds and the greens, leading to a new debate about values.

This is wise advice. However, when Klein was interviewed on National Radio by Kim Hill, the comments played afterwards were along the usual lines of what sort of meat an enlightened consumer should buy. Had she heard them, Klein might have thought no-one was listening. Blaming people for lifestyle choices is best left to the likes of #JohnKey.

Accountants To Save Capitalism?

Jane Gleeson-White offers a sub-title which begins: “The Revolution Capitalism Has To Have…” - if the planet is to be rescued from the polluters. By assuming that climate change is our most pressing concern, and that it’s driven by capitalism, this seems to be identical to Klein’s starting points. Like Klein, Gleeson-White rages against corporatocracy’s ability to pass off the costs of its dirty business to taxpayers. Her example is the hamburger. Raj Patel* has estimated that if the cost of environmental destruction is taken into account, the true cost of a burger is around $200. That’s the extent of the free ride that the profiteers are taking. It’s a mostly invisible – and outrageous – sum. But then, immediately, Gleeson-White’s subtitle takes a very different tack from Klein by asking: “Or Can Accountants Save The Planet?” Yes, she wants to suggest, they can. They need a different way to count. *See my review of Patel’s “Stuffed And Starved”, an analysis of global food production, in Watchdog 116, December 2007, Check also my review of his “The Value Of Nothing”, in Watchdog 124, August 2010,

Patel has estimated exported damage from the rich world to the poor world, the real but uncounted cost of our hamburger economies, is $US4.32 trillion. This compares to the (measured) financial debt the poor world owes to the rich world of $US1.8 trillion. Natural capital is – or would be, if the six capitals were in play – equal to financial capital, an estimate not from greenies but from the French government.

The six capitals are financial, manufactured, intellectual, human, social or relationship, and natural, and it is these that accountants could assess to measure the true cost of the hamburger. Klein seeks a grassroots transformation; Gleeson-White wants an honest accounting. If the costs of degradation were borne by the degraders, they could be called to account. They might even have to clean up their act.

We’re taken through the first tentative steps in this accounting, the principle of which has been verbally supported by the UN and by corporates. There’s a basic question to be posed: By putting a monetary value on Nature, does this accounting “effectively endorse the further encroachment of capital into the natural and social worlds” where environmentalists would say it has no place? In the Introduction we’re supplied with the answer, also expressed rhetorically: “But what systematic forces beyond democratic protest (with the unspoken implication that it’s futile to resist) can we invoke to stand against the creep of capital into very sphere of life, including Nature?”

 “Six Capitals” is thus a very different analysis from “This Changes Everything”. Both writers start with the claim that business as usual is not an option, but Gleeson-White throws in the towel before she enters the ring. It’s a curious capitulation given that she is happy to cite the analogy that corporations share the personality of psychopaths. She gives the corporates a more than fair hearing, but has to conclude that they’re really only interested in being capitalists. Financial capital is why they exist, the other five “capitals” being, for them, metaphors, the construct of academics and spin doctors, and any lip service to Gleeson-White’s new accounting will be a public relations exercise only.  In fact, making the biggest possible profit in the shortest possible time is a legal requirement owed to shareholders. There is only one bottom line.

Thus the book is tangled in contradiction. We’re told that current accounting was designed for an industrial age, not the information age, an assessment which carries with it the implication that now that we’re postmodern, we’re ready to toss off the Enlightenment and its James Watt values. This enthusiasm is made explicit when Gleeson-White suggests that the history of humanity can be seen as comprising three periods. First, around 8000 BC seeds allowed civilised settlement. Then the Enlightenment separated “consumption” and “production”, leading to our present alienation with its hierarchical values. Now, in the third, digital age, relationships are horizontal, freed from the vertical structures of the old, dead, white men.

In other words, “Six Capitals” is embracing the same loss of our democratic infrastructure that Klein laments. Gleeson-White goes so far as to approvingly cite Alvin Toffler, an original champion of late capitalism, whose method she is copying.

Flattened Impotence

What Gleeson-White sees as horizontal power is more accurately seen as flattened impotence. Yes, neo-liberalism tells us that (for example) to sell off public housing to other “providers” is to liberate all concerned, but in reality this is done as part of the neo-liberal project to shrink the public realm and extend yet further the power of corporates. That’s why we’re seeing so much (vertical) inequality these days, both between, and within, countries.

Even as Gleeson-White is suggesting that her six capitals are viable, she sabotages her thesis by referring to its “oxymoronic” categories – like “sustainable growth”, “natural capital”, and “green economics”. Her limp conclusion is to quote PriceWaterhouseCoopers (as hierarchical an outfit as you’ll ever see). Some suit there said that “for better and for worse, the common man and woman has evolved into Homo investus”. That’s because pension funds are tied up there. We’re trapped. For better and for worse? For PriceWaterhouseCoopers, it’s for better. For the rest of the planet, it’s for worse.

Current accounting, Gleeson-White repeats several times, is a Ponzi scheme*. Her favourite quote: “It liquidates its capital and calls it income”. That’s right. That’s what capital does. She should have stuck with this approach.* A pyramid scheme whereby original investors are paid beguiling dividends from new advances. These scams are still called Ponzi schemes, after Charles Ponzi, who provoked the 1925 Florida real estate bubble. Ed.

Like Klein, Gleeson-White discusses writers like George Monbiot, who argue that it’s wrong to destroy Nature; that the favoured talk of “mitigation” is a betrayal. In a better world, she seems to think, he’d be right, but we’re in a worse world so there’s no point trying. Discussing an apparent breakthrough at a People’s Summit that convened during the 1992 meeting in Rio, she – at first - endorsed its call for a green economy that would “maintain, enhance, and, where necessary, rebuild natural capital,… especially for poor people whose livelihoods and security depend strongly on Nature… Corporations continue to advance in a growing attack on the rights of the peoples, democracy and nature, seizing control over the commons of humanity to save the economic-financial system”.

That was then. The usual term for our inadequate responses is that we’re “resilient”, and an appeal for resilience is as far as Gleeson-White wants to go. Klein prefers “regenerative”. Resilience is “a passive process, implying the ability to absorb blows and get back up. Regeneration… is active: we become full participants in the process of maximising life’s creativity”.

As things stand, the chances of regeneration are less than slim. Perhaps the most depressing of all the depressing news is that some Big Green groups, the well known environmental lobbies, have themselves been corrupted by the soothing talk of “mitigation” and “partnership”, and, inexcusably, by direct bribery from the profiteers. In one case Klein looks at, Big Green is polluting its own reserve.

Which side are you on? This was the question workers once asked. Perhaps we should return to such simple dualities.

Meanwhile in New Zealand, the Resource Management Act and the Local Government Act, which helped enact neo-liberalism, are being reformed to purge them of token concerns for environmental and social values.  Only one sort of capital matters to #JohnKey.

by Michael Field, Awa Press, Wellington, 2014

One day in 2008 a fishing boat came across another boat, the Tai Ching 21, drifting in the Pacific. All of its 29 crew were missing. There had been a fire. The RNZAF and the US Air Force searched but found nothing. Neither the ship’s Korean owners nor anyone in Taiwan, where the ship was registered, paid a cent for the search. No warning signals had been sent from the ship, just as after whatever happened, no party took responsibility. The crew’s families could not be notified because there was no record of their names. The ship could have been lost and forgotten.

As far as the owners were concerned their missing ship didn’t warrant any action. Because neglect means inefficiency and expense, businesses routinely look after machines or animals or plants involved in production. As raw material in the production process, human beings on trawlers are less deserving. The crew, typically Indonesian, Filipino or Chinese, are there to maximise the catch and minimise the cost of doing so. When they disappear at sea, it’s no matter. There are millions more where they came from. They’re replaced more cheaply than a goat or a grader.

It’s better that way, as the owners don’t have to put up with legal challenges or public scrutiny. That namby-pamby stuff wastes money. The fishing industry says it wants only to put a tuna in a can at a price the consumer likes.

Boats like the Tai Ching 21 operate lines up to 100 kilometres long with 3,000 hooks. “Wall of death” drift nets, which scoop up anything and everything below the surface, are up to 55 kilometres wide. The environmental damage from scooping the ocean floor and hauling in tonnes of fish must be huge. Many thousands of tonnes of NZ paua have been bought by people who believe that paua delays senility and increases fertility. Paua thus join rhinos, sharks and elephants as creatures being driven to extinction for non-existent properties.

If some New Zealanders are now aware that the seas around us can be inhumanly cruel, we can thank Michael Field. He’s been investigating the fishing industry for years, delving where others dare not dive. This book results from interviews with people who otherwise might have remained voiceless.

Slave Ships

To get a job on a boat, it’s common for future sailors to hand over documents to the company. Agents charge recruitment fees and hold applicants in debt bondage. Field has tracked down a contract clause which stipulated that a deserter would leave his family owing $US3, 500, an intolerable burden for an Indonesian villager. Agents hurry through the negotiations, offering a contract written in English.

In 2010 the Oyang 70 left Port Chalmers, carrying water that was not drinkable and with no running water in the toilet and no shower in the crew’s quarters for the men to use after their 18 hour work days. They were fed fish that had been rejected for later sale. Oyang 70 was bound for the Bounty Islands and later planned on fishing off the Auckland Islands, near a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Fish were so plentiful that the ship’s hold was soon filled but the captain ordered more fish to be towed in a net. The crew objected that the load was dangerously uneven but were told not to cut the net loose. The ship sank, and 700 tonnes of fuel oil were discharged. That only six died this time was a lucky fluke, the captain having used the wrong radio to signal. His message carried only a short distance to where a NZ ship heard the call and the RNZAF scrambled.

Field lists what went wrong, which was everything. Doors that had to be always closed were always open and the fuel tanks were carrying uneven loads. Disaster was waiting to happen; the towed net guaranteed it. Then, as the ship took on water, no instructions were given. At sea Korean, a language unavailable to the crew, was used. Another Korean exclusive were life jackets. Deckhands had none.

When the crew were in a metre of water they left their posts. It emerged later that other foreign fishing boats were nearby and had heard the signal and ignored it. They had other fish to fry.

The NZ ship that rescued survivors docked at Lyttelton, where police sealed off the wharf so that – as Field relates it – media could not reach them. A bus took the crew through the road tunnel, which police then blocked, to a Christchurch motel. In the wee small hours they were flown out to Singapore. The NZ police had been recruited to protect the private convenience of the Korean owners.

At the inquest the information blackout continued, the coroner ruling that conditions on the boat were not relevant. The widows’ statement of 158 words was inadmissible.

Should it have been? Field quotes it: “Thank you for the chance to speak to the coroner’s inquest. It was a long 20 months since the heart-wrenching loss of our loved ones yet we still do not know what happened to cause their demise.

 “The NZ government has not told us anything. We trusted NZ government to keep our men safe because NZ is a safe country”. Field was not allowed to report this sentence.

 “Now we are without their income in our family. We must struggle every day and hold our dignity. Since we learned they should be paid NZ minimum wage it is worse because we never received the minimum wage even to this day”.

Then a paragraph that was approved for publication: “We are very grateful to our representatives and Accident Compensation Corporation who finally achieved some money for us after this time. We ask that the New Zealand government and the fishing company do not forget us”.

Field adds a wry postscript, noting that ACC was not obligated to pay out as the disaster had not taken place in NZ. An Indonesian widow had taken out her own insurance, selling her wedding necklace to pay an Indonesian agent’s fee of a $US440 premium. She had been promised that her husband would be paid $US280 a month. She got nothing from the owners or the insurers.

Field contacted a reluctant Korean Embassy, who replied: “We hope that in any context neither the Korean Embassy nor the Korean Government will be referred to in any article about these issues and we wish such hopes will be respected by you. From now on, any further correspondence from you on these issues will not be acknowledged or responded to. Also, the content of this email must not be disclosed, quoted, or referred to in any form whatsoever”. Hours after the sinking the company owner’s name changed.

With the NZ merchant navy, Air Force and public insurance scheme being the only actors in the drama performing honourably it might seem that Field’s polemic is aimed at damned foreigners. 

Seeing No Evil

Not at all. Actually the international fishing industry is discussed only as background to Field’s investigation of New Zealand‘s role, his point being the maritime chaos is very much a domestic matter. We hadn’t heard about the rust buckets because domestic elites were all for them. NZ governments have for years known about the appalling lives of men putting out from our ports. They were bent on seeing no evil.

The slave boats, owned offshore and crewed offshore, fish in NZ waters and thereby market their catch as produce of NZ. Under the quota system, introduced to curb the sort of over-fishing that devastated orange roughy stocks in just a few years, a proportion was awarded to Maori tribal interests. For this there was historical justification, Maori having been prominent fishers. They then leased their rights. 

Korean owners created a New Zealand-registered company, Southern Storm Fishing (2007) Ltd, 2007 (SSF). They in turn contracted Fisheries Consultancy (NZ) Limited of Lyttelton to run the cutter locally. Below these companies of convenience are local agents, trouble shooters. After a sister Korean boat docked at Lyttelton, the crew mutinied, alleging assault from officers. Police took no action. In the two Lyttelton episodes a Pete Dawson fronted, presumably acting as the link between the boats’ owners and the NZ Police.

As a result of the unwelcome investigations of a few people like Field, the Government grudgingly allowed that NZ could not continue to see no evil, and drowned, unpaid and beaten workers are not a good look. After the Lyttelton mutiny news escaped, and the Ministers concerned, Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson, had to make some placatory noises. Till then they had defended the existing system; now they formed a committee. The hope would have been to spend decades issuing vague statements.

As though aping African despotisms, which see resources as benefit schemes for billionaires, the Key regime sees no further than the bottom line. Safety measures, it replied to early critics, were “uneconomic”. By this it meant that if New Zealand wages were to be paid, the annual bill would be $NZ5.6 million. Asians are paid $NZ676, 000

Iwi Profit From It

In 2012 the new Ministry for Primary Industries claimed that if iwi lost access to foreign-chartered fishing boats they would be entitled to up to $NZ2.3 billion in compensation*. Legislation requiring the reflagging of all such vessels to New Zealand – meaning the boats would have to obey New Zealand law, including paying crew at least the New Zealand minimum wage – might “disproportionately impact on Maori and iwi quota holders, particularly if [other] vessels are unavailable [and] a worst case scenario could result in a loss in export revenues of around $NZ300 million annually”. *See my review above of “This Changes Everything” for other examples of slavers getting paid out.

Pita Sharples, Minister of Maori Affairs and Co-Leader of the Maori Party, National’s partner, was indignant over even this compromise. How his people managed business, he declared, was none of the Government’s business. Maori landowners “tried to balance commercial, cultural and social imperatives”.

Field contacted a large tribal group in Hawkes Bay who had just opted out of using their quota and passed it to a consolidator. Asked why, an official replied: “There are protocols of courtesy should media wish to engage with Ngati Kahungunu. Should this iwi opt to make a statement, a written press release will be issued”. None was.

So it’s a deplorable tale. The New Zealand State, through its police, its courts and its Governments, has acted shamefully, as have opportunists the State has sanctioned; our tribes; our hustling businessmen. Politicians haven’t had much to say either, possibly because MPs from both the bigger parties have accepted donations from the fishing companies. Greed and violence from immoral people who operate free from regulation is only to be expected, but when Government Ministers, their departments, and pompously hypocritical community leaders are happy to declare that the Treaty of Waitangi demands that slavery continues in New Zealand, we as a nation are in trouble.

The 2012 Roger Award For The Worst Transnational Corporation Operating in Aotearoa/New Zealand was won by Taejin Fisheries, with the Government and United Fisheries sharing the Accomplice Award. The Judges’ Report is online at Te Runanga A Iwi O Ngapuhi was runner up for the 2014 Accomplice Award. The Judges’ Statement, by Chief Judge Paul Maunder says: “It was a scandal that iwi had been involved in this exploitation of their Pacific brothers. To try and hold on to that exploitation was extraordinary. But that, as they say, is capitalism”. The full 2014 Judges’ Report can be accessed at . Ed.


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