Transalta Wins Roger Award

For The Worst Transnational Corporation In NZ In 1999:
Tranz Rail & Monsanto Get Dishonourable Mention

- Murray Horton

Canadian power company, TransAlta, which owns energy retailers in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch (Southpower), has the dubious honour of being the winner of the Roger Award for the Worst Transnational Corporation in New Zealand in 1999. The Award was announced in Christchurch on February 18th.

The judges were: Maxine Gay, president of the Trade Union Federation, Wellington; Moana Jackson, Maori Legal Service, Wellington; and Professor Jane Kelsey, Auckland. To quote from their report: "TransAlta’s brief foray into New Zealand is a warning to the world of what can happen when basic infrastructural services such as electricity are privatised and deregulated". Having made its money, TransAlta has this year agreed to sell its NZ assets to an Australian company for a tax-free capital gain of almost $300 million. "During its seven years here, TransAlta:

  • Raised prices for domestic consumers and for small and medium businesses, while cutting prices for big businesses.
  • Sacked workers to an extent which is causing those left to fear for their safety.
  • Was a partner in building two gas-fired power stations which produced about half of the total increase in NZ carbon dioxide emissions from 1990-98.
  • Blatantly attempted to blackmail the NZ Government into abandoning a proposal to force energy companies to split their lines and retailing businesses by threatening to leave the country if the change went through.
  • Campaigned to wind up the Hutt-Mana Energy Trust which was elected democratically in local body elections, because its minority stake in TransAlta NZ was an obstacle to the Canadians’ plans to sell out at an even greater profit".

The criteria for judging were by assessing the transnational that has the most negative impact in New Zealand in each or all of the following fields: unemployment, monopoly, profiteering, abuse of workers/conditions, political interference, environmental damage, cultural imperialism, impact on tangata whenua, running an ideological crusade, impact on women, health and safety of workers and the public. TransAlta "contravened acceptable standards across virtually all the criteria".

Tranz Rail (1997 winner; 1998 Continuity Award) was given another Continuity Award "because its persistent failure to maintain the safety of its rolling stock has continued to put its customers and workers at risk of crippling injury and death". Monsanto (1998 winner) was put on the Roger Watchlist because it "is trying to make New Zealand a site in the international development of genetic engineering".

The other finalists were: News Ltd, which owns the INL media chain; WestpacTrust; Telecom and Waste Management. (The full judges’ report follows. Ed.).

The Event

It was CAFCA’s turn to once again organise the Award and the event itself. We decided to change the latter. For the previous two announcements, the event had been held at night, as part of a social function. These had both been extremely enjoyable, but had brought with them the various hassles of organising a social function, plus the media had complained that night was no good for meeting their deadlines.

So, for the announcement of the 1999 winner, we organised no social function, but instead decided to hold it at the Christchurch premises of the winner. A study of the list of finalists established that this was feasible (one or two of them are out of town, but not impossible). This year, the judges reached an early and unanimous decision – TransAlta. Even better, the judges’ report was ready right on deadline, giving us a couple of weeks to get ready.

An initial reconnaissance trip to the Southpower building in Manchester Street (the scene of many a 1990s picket and other actions in the days of the former Campaign for Peoples Sovereignty) established that it was empty and for lease. There was still a facility for the poor to queue up and recharge their Power Manager cards. Posters on the building told people where they could pay their power bills (at banks) and gave them a phone number to ring for inquiries. I rang it and was told that Southpower now has no point of physical contact with its Christchurch customers. If you want something, they’ll ring you, send it to you, or come and see you. But there is no building to which Christchurch customers can go. Southpower has gone underground. A second visit to the Manchester Street building found that even the Power Manager recharging facility has shut and been relocated to a Mobil service station on Bealey Avenue, on the very edge of the central city (good to see the power transnationals and the oil transnationals working together). TransAlta still has a physical presence in Chrstchurch – it has opened its national call centre in the (renovated) former Warehouse building, in Wordsworth Street, Sydenham. But this anonymous building, which serves all TransAlta’s customers nationwide, is not open to the public.

We decided that the empty Southpower building was the most appropriate place to make the announcement of the winner. On yet another of the dismal days that characterised the 1999/2000 summer, public and media assembled in Cathedral Square and then walked the three blocks to the building. Maxine Gay, the chief judge, detailed why the judges had picked the winner and runners up, presenting all the relevant certificates and the splendiferous Award itself to me (in the absence of any transnational representatives). There were about 20 people present, plus various print media reporters and camera crews from three TV networks. The corporate media does not give front page banner headlines to the Roger Award (funnily enough) – the Press ran a tiny report; the NZ Press Association sent it to papers around the country; Prime TV News gave it the most extensive televisual coverage; TVNZ’s Assignment filmed it as part of a forthcoming documentary on the energy "reforms". We have also circulated the decision to media in Canada, (TransAlta’s "home"), Argentina and Australia – other countries where it operates or has operated. We have received requests from throughout the country for the judges’ full report. Our choice of venue was borne out by the fact that, in the short time we were there, several bewildered members of the public who had come to the building only to find it closed and empty, asked us how they were now supposed to make inquiries about their power bills, etc. They were not impressed by TransAlta’s new version of "service".

Spindoctors; Judge Resigns

Media interest had started months before the winner was announced. When we released the list of finalists, and the names of the judges, back in late 1999, I was rung twice in short order by an Otago Daily Times reporter. Her sole point of interest was that Dunedin’s Mayor, Sukhi Turner, was not one of the judges this time (Sukhi was the Roger Award’s most high profile judge in 1997 & 98, taking considerable flak from the very same Otago Daily Times and other bastions of the Dunedin Establishment). Her burning question was: "Had there been a rift between Sukhi and the organisers?" I explained that we and Sukhi had decided to give her a break, to rotate the judges, and give somebody else a go. We knew that Sukhi was perfectly happy to do it again. So the ODT was not able to beat up a story out of that – nonetheless Sukhi’s absence from the Roger judges was the angle in their coverage.

An unprecedented approach was made to us by the public relations firm of one of the finalists. When the first Award was held, back in 1997, a couple of PR firms approached us on behalf of anonymous clients, unsuccessfully seeking insider information such as advance knowledge of the winner. But this was different - the approach was from Jane Parlane, of the Auckland Communications Company, on behalf of their client, Waste Management. She rang me more than once, anxious to know things like who had nominated WM ("was it an individual or an organisation?"). We don’t release those sort of details. Her main aim was for us to relay PR material to the judges, so that, presumably, they would have all the "facts". Eventually she sent an entire NZ Post Handibox full of PR bumf, with one set for each judge – annual reports, glowing environmental references and articles from the likes of Lockwood Smith and Guy Salmon (with friends like those, who needs enemies?), even a videotape singing the praises of WM’s Redvale landfill, north of Auckland (this had been made especially for use in the difficult job of mollifying Canterbury rural communities fighting the proposed regional landfill). We did the decent thing and notified the judges that this stuff was here for them should they wish to have it – none took up the offer.

This year’s Award also involved us in another unprecedented situation – one of the judges resigned because of a conflict of interest. Simon Collins, editor of Wellington’s independent paper, City Voice, resigned in January, as soon as he realised that one of the finalists was that perennial contender, Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire, News Ltd, owner of INL in this country. Why? Because he was in the process of applying for a senior journalistic job with one of INL’s flagship New Zealand papers and felt that he had a conflict of interest. He wasn’t concerned about his own career – after all, he had been publicly named as one of the judges of the 1999 Roger Award – but he thought that his involvement could undermine the credibility and integrity of the Award. A hurried round of consultation with organisers and fellow judges agreed that he should resign. There were no hard feelings on either side – Simon had done the decent thing, drawn it to our attention and offered to resign as soon as he realised that one of the finalists was his potential employer. It dramatically illustrated the very limited career choices for journalists in this country – there’s precious little NZ media not owned by one of the transnational chains.

The Roger Award has been running for three years now. It’s hard work but very worthwhile. It has established a reputation for hardhitting, impeccably researched decisions, and it obviously has an impact upon its target transnationals. It is never going to get major coverage from the corporate media, but there are other ways of getting the word out.

The 2000 Award will see a change – for the first time, the event announcing the winner will not be in Christchurch, but Wellington. Details have still to be worked out, but you’ll be the first to know. It’s all part of our determination to share the Roger Award around, to make it part of the fabric of the fightback throughout the country. Look out transnationals, we’re coming after you.

Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. December 1999.


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