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Keep Our Port Public!

Keep Our Port Public!
Murray Horton

Murray Horton is a media spokesperson for the Keep Our Port Public coalition.

Only a year ago the Mayor was quoted (Press, 14/3/05) as saying: "It is good news for ratepayers because the money the Council gets from Christchurch City Holdings Ltd (CCHL) means rates are up to 18% lower than they would be. It shows the Council was right not to sell the assets when people like the Business Roundtable called us the People's Republic of Christchurch". But now he is enthusiastically in favour of the Council, via CCHL, selling half of its stake to Hutchison Port Holdings of Hong Kong. Why has he changed his mind? The Council has absolutely no mandate for this. It was certainly never mentioned by any of the sitting Councillors in their 2004 campaign. Why has there been no public consultation - as required by law - about the proposed sale? It would appear that this is not the People's Democratic Republic of Christchurch. The Mayor now argues (Press, 16/3/06, "Strong partnership") that the best way to make the "family silver sparkle" again is by selling it. Which is one from "the operation was a success but the patient died" school of comedy.

This is both a privatisation and sale offshore of a strategic asset, the biggest cash cow in the City Council's treasury. The Council utters reassuring noises about it retaining half of the shares and therefore control. The law is, and has been since 1973, that any company more than 24.9% foreign-owned is a foreign company. The Council reassures 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 former public asset, not the 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. And all for an announced net gain of $41 million. The piddly amount simply adds insult to injury.

This is the latest move by the Council ideologues who want to convert the People's Republic into Christchurch Inc. It graunches back into life a process that was stalled and discredited back in the unlamented 1990s, namely privatisation. This is the first such sale here since National forced it to sell Southpower. But this one has not been forced on it by anyone else, it is all the Council's own work. It will set off a stampede for port "restructuring and rationalisation" around the country, a process that progressed as far as corporatisation during the 1980s' Rogernomics pandemic. And it looks like there will more to come - the Council has removed both the Red Bus Company and City Care, from its list of strategic assets to be protected. It would now appear that the Mayor's policy on publicly-owned city assets is that less is definitely Moore. It sets a dangerous precedent.

In short, it's all so very 90s. Doubtless we'll hear a lot about "why does the Council need to own a port?" Followed by "why does the Council need to own an airport, water, parks, libraries, roads, etc, etc?". Two cautionary examples will suffice - Tranz Rail and Air New Zealand. Weren't they glittering showcases for public assets flogged off overseas? Mention of the forced sale of Southpower reminds us what a success story the retail energy sector has been. Not. Or, how about Telecom?

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.

Nobody has any fond illusions about the present Lyttelton Port Company. It has not been a good corporate citizen, both in the way it has treated its workers and the local community. But this is no excuse to chuck out the baby with the seawater. Instead of improving this publicly-owned company, the Council is selling it overseas. The ownership of ports is a hot political item internationally and nowhere more so than in America, where the sale of six major ports to a Dubai company has just been abandoned due to widespread opposition, nowhere more so than in the ruling Republican Party (much to the embarrassment of President Bush).

The shipping companies ruthlessly play off ports against each other. The buzzword is "hubbing"-goods are moved through one hub, to suit the shipping company or companies, rather than through the nearest local port to suit that community and the customers. Why are the bold leaders of Christchurch Inc. not challenging this situation and cooperating with the other South Island ports to negotiate from a collective position of strength?

What we're seeing is not only a sell-off but a sell-out and it's not going unopposed. A wide range of groups and individuals have come together to form the coalition Keep Our Port Public. The fact that Hutchison is from Hong Kong, with strong Chinese connections, is not the issue. Our position would be the same if it was American, British or Australian. We are holding a public meeting in the Limes Room, in the Christchurch Town Hall, on April 10th.

By an ironic coincidence, this is the anniversary of another great maritime disaster that put a nail in the coffin of Lyttelton, namely the 1968 fatal sinking of the Wahine (its loss meant the end, a few years later, of the Lyttelton inter-island passenger service). The pirates are moving in. We must stand by to repel the boarders and ensure that the Jolly Roger does not fly over our port.


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