And Take Your Bad Rubbish With You

- Murray Horton

Finally! For as long as the Campaign Against Foreign Control (CAFCA) has existed - 45+ years - we have called for the closure of Rio Tinto's Bluff smelter (for example, see our historic Comalco comic). The reasons why we called for its closure have never changed - it is a transnational corporate ripoff, the biggest bludger in New Zealand. It is a liability to New Zealand, not an asset.

The smelter is the country's single biggest user of electricity, consuming nearly one sixth of the total, 24/7 for nearly 50 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 aluminium, while being subsidised by all other electricity users. The smelter is the textbook example of corporate welfare in New Zealand.

It has been receiving a massive taxpayer subsidy continuously for nearly 50 years, in the form of the Manapouri Power Station built with public money for its exclusive use (and let's never forget that a number of men died building that); and the cheapest and most secret power price rate in the country bar none. Not good enough apparently, Rio Tinto still wanted more from the Government.

CAFCA congratulates the Government for not bending to yet more blackmail from this unrepentant transnational recidivist and, finally - decades later than it should have - told Rio Tinto: "You say you're going to bugger off if you don't get even more handouts. Fair enough, bugger off". The Government needs to learn a lesson from this. It is including a national interest test in its Overseas Investment Amendment Bill. The smelter would never have passed it. Make sure that any similar schemes don't either.

Indisputably, the smelter closing will have a negative impact on Invercargill and Southland. CAFCA advocates a "Just Transition" for its workers, just as for climate change. The idea is to help them through that change, not just put them on the dole and hope they will find another, typically poorer paid, job. It involves both industry policy to ensure those jobs exist, ideally in Southland, and greatly improved income replacement, retraining opportunities, assistance with job searching, and relocation assistance if necessary if they do lose their jobs. Put the Provincial Growth Fund to work.

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. And make sure that they (those recipients of corporate welfare par excellence), and not the NZ taxpayer, foot the bill for cleaning up their mess. That would involve Labour facing up to the 2003 and 04 indemnities signed by Michael Cullen, Labour's Minister of Finance at the time, accepting that the taxpayer, and not the smelter owners, would be liable for the cost of cleaning up toxic waste produced by the smelting process. That taxpayer liability remains in force today. Make the polluter pay.

The conventional wisdom used to be that the smelter is bad for the country but good for Southland. Not so much now, in light of very recent events. The massive floods throughout Southland in February 2020 ran the very real risk of setting off an environmental catastrophe (not to mention a major threat to life) if the water had got into huge quantities of smelter toxic waste stored in Mataura, which would have released ammonia gas. Fortunately, that did not happen. But neither the toxic waste nor the threat have gone away - much to the anger and fear of Mataura residents.


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