Peters wins via key dog whistles

Let's blame the Greeks. Ultimately, we can hold them responsible for the sudden, unforeseeable collapse in value of the gilt-edged state enterprise Solid Energy, which looked ever so good when it bought the blast-damaged Pike River mine just a few weeks ago, but which is now in big layoff and retrenchment mode.

If those descendants of Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great had not rorted the system, cooked the books and set off the Eurozone crisis, then we possibly would not be in this mess ourselves. Solid Energy could have been put up as planned for partial sale to Mum and Dad investors as part of the Government's programme to reduce debt and broaden the capital markets.

It might not have looked much compared with the fantastic lineup of historic old palaces and castles the Italian Government is hawking off to help balance its books. They can truly be described as the family silver. Solid Energy was always a highly regarded operation, but who would buy it now? Its balance sheet and forward projections are alarming. It looks as doubtful as Greek loans, Berlusconi bonds and Spanish promises. And it all seemed to happen in the blink of an eye.

By helping to send the Eurozone into recession mode, the Greeks in effect stalled Chinese exports into Europe after they had already slowed into America. That left reduced Chinese demands for many imports, including coking coal in the amounts we were sending and at the prices we were fetching.

That's bad enough, but the general world recession is causing setbacks for our other gold-plated state energy utilities as well. Newsprint production, a huge energy user, has halved at Kawerau. And Rio Tinto seems to be serious this time, and not just bluffing, in wanting to reduce output at the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, a casualty of reduced aluminium sales during a recession.

So what would you pay for a power company under these conditions? It is not just big industrial users reducing demand, but householders are cutting back, too. That's partly because of better insulation and other efficiencies, but it is also consumer resistance from families who cannot stretch their budgets any further to meet relentless electricity price increases.

Many parents seem to be working out that it is cheaper to buy (Chinese-made) fleecy jackets for all the kids than to turn up the heaters. So the guaranteed year-on-year electricity demand increase does not seem so certain any more.

So how did we get to this pretty pass, hawking off a parcel of depreciating assets against huge public opposition when the electorate, by returning National, basically gave the OK at the last election? Again, let's blame those sons of Archimedes, this time assisted by the sons of Kupe.

Utilities generally make good investments, except when the sales process is complicated by taniwha and elusive concepts like the ownership of water. That is all going to sound like ancient Greek when explained to investors. They will not be comforted, either, by the prospect of legal action before a judiciary renowned for judicial activism.

Politically, National cannot back down from its policy of a partial sale of selected state assets as this is a fundamental tenet of its policy. The loss of mana would be enormous.

But as it is inevitable that the water rights and ownership issue will end up in court sooner or later, Prime Minister John Key no doubt figured he might as well short-circuit the process, pushing ahead, with a slight delay while at the same time appearing reasonable by offering to consult.

The biggest winner is NZ First leader Winston Peters. He managed two key dog whistles.

One was to the Right, asking what would be the next claim after water - ''the air?''

Then he signalled the Centre and Left, saying the decision to continue the assets selldown was ''a bloody-minded push for an ideological outcome''.

With these lines, Mr Peters will be back after the next election. With Act and the Maori Party likely to be history, Mr Key will need to learn to deal instead with Mr Peters and Colin Craig's Conservative Christians.

The Dominion Post