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Chch Council Flogs Off Lyttelton Port Company

14/2/06
Chief Reporter

Christchurch City Council Flogs Off Lyttelton Port Company
Full Speed Ahead To The 1990s

The announcement that the Christchurch City Council is bidding (via Christchurch City Holdings Ltd) to buy the 31% of the shares that it doesn’t already own in the Lyttelton Port Company has been touted as somehow returning this corporatised public asset to civic ownership. If the deal stopped there, that would be true. Unfortunately, it does no such thing. The Council is undertaking a two stage process that will see it sell off the Port Company to transnational port management company, Hutchison Port Holdings of Hong Kong. The resulting joint venture will be an approximate 50/50 share split.

In terms of the Overseas Investment Act, any company with more than 24.9% foreign shareholding is defined as a foreign company. The proposed new Lyttelton Port Company will easily meet that definition. So, in one fell swoop (albeit a two stage fell swoop) the City Council will have not only privatised the port company but also sold it overseas.

This should put paid to any lingering illusions about the “People’s Republic of Christchurch”. That may have been true a few years ago but the Council is now very much a victim of corporate capture and sees its mission as running the city as a business. This proposed sale takes us straight back to the 1990s and resumes a process that had stopped when the Council had to sell off Southpower (and what a fiasco the retail energy sector has been ever since, throughout the country). At least then it could plead that it had no choice, that it was forced into selling Southpower by the National government’s policy. But no such situation exists today – flogging off the port company is all the Council’s bright idea (or that of the ideologues who are driving the “businesslike”agenda within the Council). It takes us back to discredited notions like Private Public Partnerships, and other such phrases that were all the fashion last decade, when corporatisation, privatisation and flogging off public assets overseas were all the fashion. In short, it’s all so very 90s.

Doubtless we’ll hear a lot about “why does the City Council need to own a port?” Followed by “why does the Council need to own an airport, water, parks, libraries, roads, etc, etc”. The 1990s has definitely jolted back into life and we’re now on a slippery slope indeed. Two cautionary examples will suffice – Tranz Rail and Air New Zealand. Weren’t they glittering showcases for public assets flogged off overseas?

The Council will reassure us that Hutchison Port Holdings is an experienced port operator. But the fact is that once this deal is through, it will be Hutchison calling the shots with our public asset, not the Christchurch City Council. That’s the central reality of foreign control – ownership means control, and decisions are made elsewhere, in the interests of the foreign owner and its shareholders. That may well include on-selling the asset to another foreign owner. Or, as the taxpayer had to do in the case of both Tranz Rail and Air New Zealand, the Christchurch ratepayer may be left to clean up the mess and buy back what was once ours. As the saying goes, “That’s business”.

The award for starry eyed naivete goes to City Holdings chair, Bob Lineham, who said that the deal is timely as NZ is negotiating a free trade agreement with China. Does he seriously think that having our port owned by a Hong Kong transnational corporation will make any difference to that? There’s been an American military base at Christchurch Airport for more than 50 years but that doesn’t seem to have to have done NZ any good in terms of getting a free trade deal with the US.

It’s a sad day for Christchurch. And all for an announced net gain of $41 million. The question must be asked: is the Council so strapped for cash that it has to flog off a major public asset for bugger all return? The piddly amount simply adds insult to injury.

Goodbye People’s Republic, hello Christchurch Inc, run by, for and of Big Business.

Murray Horton
Secretary/Organiser

CAFCA
Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa

ENDS

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