Smelter NZ's biggest bludger

MURRAY HORTON
Last updated 16:52 01/11/2012
tiwai smelter splash
JOB LOSSES: The NZAS smelter at Tiwai Point is set to lay off staff as it strives to keep the plant viable.

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OPINION: Every time Rio Tinto, the gargantuan mining and processing transnational that owns 80 per cent of the aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point, 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.

Last time it did so (in 2008) was because of the then Labour government's proposed emissions trading scheme.

This time it is trying it on as a tactic to try to pressure Meridian over its power price contract, which has already been negotiated and is due to take effect in January.

It has succeeded in whipping up a storm of uncertainty among its workers, the union representing some of them, the Southland public and their local-body politicians.

Rio Tinto has relentlessly peddled the line that its new power price from Meridian - which hasn't even taken effect yet - must come down, because of the falling world price for aluminium.

But what it hasn't said is that: "The agreed base price is subject to escalation with reference to a multi-year average market price for electricity in New Zealand, the world price for aluminium (as determined by an independent benchmark), and a component as proxy for price inflation".

The quote - with my emphasis added - is from Meridian's latest financial reports. In plain English, the world price of aluminium is already factored into its new power contract with Meridian.

Once again, Rio Tinto is just trying it on, with every expectation that Meridian will fold. And why wouldn't Rio Tinto expect that?

For the past nearly 50 years it has twisted every New Zealand government and State-owned electricity supplier around its little finger.

The Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA) calls upon Meridian to break the mould and surprise us by sticking to its guns.

And we call Rio Tinto's bluff. 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, close the smelter and bugger off. See if we care. The country will be much better off without you.

Don't take our word for that. Transpower's chief executive, Patrick Strange, said if the smelter closes, the surplus power would go to the rest of the grid, meaning lower prices for consumers.

CAFCA says bring on the lower prices for long-suffering consumers who have been waiting since the 1990s for any tangible benefits from the "electricity reforms". All we've seen is ever-increasing power prices.

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The smelter is the country's single biggest user of electricity, consuming one sixth 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 New Zealand 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 is the biggest bludger in the country. Those who extol the bracing discipline of market forces for everybody else are strangely coy when it comes to this corporate recidivist.

Rio Tinto won the 2011 Roger Award for the Worst Transnational Corporation Operating In Aotearoa/New Zealand. 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 concludes 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 reveals that the smelter's claimed benefits to New Zealand- annual export earnings of "around $1 billion" - are overstated by four-fifths.

In short, it is a liability to New Zealand, not an asset.

Equally undeniably, it has been good for Southland, in terms of jobs, etc. So what about the people who work for the smelter, directly or indirectly?

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 but which were 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.

Murray Horton is secretary/organiser of Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA).

- The Southland Times

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