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Unions “Keep The Airport Ours” Forum Was Democracy In Action

Thistle Hall was packed out on the night of Wednesday 17 April with members of the public concerned about the Council’s proposal to sell its 34% share in Wellington Airport.

The forum, organised by Unions Wellington, was attended by nine Wellington City Councillors, and featured speeches from NZCTU economist Craig Renney, Rilke Comer from the Climate Clinic and Ashok Jacob from Unions Wellington. Members of the public also got the chance to speak about their concerns.

The councillors were then asked for their position on retaining the Council’s stake in the airport, and were given 3 minutes each to address the audience.

“Public engagement is key to our democracy,” says Unions Wellington spokesperson Sabina Rizos-Shaw. “The sale of assets is a widely and deeply felt public issue, and we were pleased to offer a space for robust conversations where members of the public, experts, and councillors could all be heard.”

“We want to thank the Councillors who did attend. We were happy to see respectful conduct and engagement on both sides of the floor, and a desire to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges facing the city.”

A primary motivator for the sale is to establish an investment fund to insure the city against a risk of natural disasters, but economist Craig Renney talked about how the Christchurch rebuild cost $38 billion, and the sale of the airport would leave the Council with $400 million at most.

Renney said the Airport, as a strategic asset, a natural monopoly, and one of Wellington’s biggest employers, is a strong investment with greater returns than what a diversified fund investment fund could return.

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Climate Clinic representative Rilke Comer spoke about her experience litigating against private companies for environmental damages. She said she would rather not have to litigate against Infratil if the sale went ahead, and that private companies are harder to hold accountable for environmental damages.

With a 34% share, the Council retains a lot of power, and can block any major transaction or decision that would cause further damages to the vulnerable coastline and ecosystems, such as the runway extension that majority shareholder Infratil has been pushing for.

Unions Wellington member Ashok Jacob, who represents council workers, spoke about how when public enterprises and assets are privatised, they become worse employers, as profit incentive takes priority over public benefit. He used the recent example of the Wellington bus services.

The privatisation of bus services had led to deteriorating pay and working conditions for bus drivers, and a deteriorating service for Wellingtonians, leading to drivers being locked out by NZ Bus in 2021. The crisis for workers and service users required the Greater Wellington Regional Council to intervene for drivers to receive better pay.

Of the nine councillors who attended, Rebecca Matthews, Laurie Foon, Nīkau Wi Neera, Teri O'Neill, Nureddin Abdurahman, Geordie Rogers and Ray Chung expressed support to retain the Council’s airport shares. Tim Brown was in favour of the sale, and Iona Pannett did not take a position.

Many of the councillors who supported retaining the shares explained their rationale for voting to put the sale out for consultation, and the challenges facing Councillors to be “seen to be doing something” about the lack of insurance.

“We’re pleased to see a strong position from Green Party-affiliated councillors to retain assets, consistent with past commitments and the Green Party’s history and policies of support for public ownership,” says Rizos-Shaw.

“Unions Wellington will be doing a detailed submission as part of the public consultation process, and invites its supporters to get in contact, and show up to support us when we make an oral submission.”

“We will be giving out free campaign t-shirts and badges at our events for those who want to support our work.”

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