When my partner Barry and I first got together we’d leave Auckland most weekends on whimsical ventures to quintessential New Zealand locations. National parks and beaches featured but so too did our energy assets: Marsden Point, the Motunui methanol plant and, indelibly, the Whakamaru Power Station. There the might of the Waikato powered the factories and family dinners which lit up the load-sensitive charts of the national grid in the adjacent switching station. We were transfixed by the marriage of natural power and human endeavour and felt deeply connected to it.
It’s a feeling we often recall, both shedding a few tears last week as the Government’s launch of the Mighty River share float headlined.
There’s been plenty of commentary on the economics of the sales. These days no one pretends that the private sector will be better at running these companies than we are. Stockbrokers will make hay on early turnover and the bonus for those who hang on longer is a tidy subsidy to those who can afford to. The Capital Markets Development Taskforce, which came up with the idea in 2009, wasn’t concerned with our energy policy or the debt-dividend trade off (which doesn’t favour sales by the way). They just approached our national assets as financial tools to address private sector failure to provide “high quality equity offerings”.
The draining of our national wealth to private interests has been like a chronic public policy illness all my grown up life. In my album is a 1990 snapshot of me and baby Sam outside the local 3 Guys supermarket collecting signatures against Labour’s sale of Telecom. At the same time Rob Cameron, who would later emerge as chair of the aforementioned taskforce, was advising Bell Atlantic and Ameritech on the acquisition of Telecom. That sale is now virtually universally criticised for leaving New Zealand with the worst of all worlds – an unregulated privately owned natural monopoly which took nearly 20 years and the loss of countless opportunities to bring into line.
23 years later we are all still at our posts. Today Sam’s and my signatures lie on the biggest ever petition for a Citizens Initiated Referendum to be presented to Parliament. The 392,000 signatures should produce the 308,000 from enrolled voters needed for a referendum. While the Government derides the effort put in to collect signatures (the Greens alone have mobilised over 3000 volunteers in the 10 months since the launch of the petition), they represent hundreds of thousands of conversations, each triggering or re-triggering someone’s discomfort with this pending loss. To those who sigh as they sign and say “good on you but this won’t make a difference” I want to say, “that means it already has.”
This is a point worth making, even if the Government defies its public. It’s been worth making through the petition, and it will be worth making with the referendum. Not just because of economics or the importance of energy policy to the environment or the impact of continued power price gouging on ordinary households. I didn’t shed a tear this week because my power prices might go up, but because my ability to buy into this racket means nothing compared to the loss of another major public endeavour, and one so strongly linking generations.
New Zealanders have opposed asset sales for three decades. That matters. We held the line against the sale of Auckland assets even when the law demanded it. In fact holding the line stopped the sale of the Ports of Auckland not once, not twice, but three times and it will again if necessary. Holding the line has prevented water privatisation. It restored ACC to public control. Christchurch will hold the line against this Government’s demands to sell its assets to pay for a rebuild for which there are many more sensible funding options. Holding the line has protected us from the PPP failures now being bankrolled by other governments and it will give us a publicly owned, built and managed City Rail Link in Auckland.
Holding the line made it possible to rescue an airline and a railway. It even made it possible for the Alliance as a minority partner in coalition to start a new bank.
So when the presidents of Greypower and the NZ Union of Students Associations renew that intergenerational pact as they hand over the petition on the steps of Parliament today I’ll enjoy buying a celebratory sandwich with my Kiwibank Foundation Customer card.