New Zealand: Tens of thousands challenge asset sales

New Zealand: Tens of thousands challenge asset sales

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At the beginning of 2011 the ruling National Party in New Zealand (Aotearoa) announced electoral policy for the partial sale of several major state assets including the Solid Energy coal company, Air New Zealand, and three major power companies – Mighty River Power, Meridian Energy, and Genesis Energy.

After its re-election and the formation of a coalition government with the ACT party and the Maori Party in late-2011, the government has pursued the sale despite the policy being very unpopular.

By Jared Phillips, Hamilton, New Zealand

A TV3 poll conducted in early 2012 found that only 35% of people surveyed agreed with the sales while 3.5% were unsure and 63% opposed the sales. As a consequence a broad opposition of diverse forces has formed and driven a struggle on the streets, in the courts, and by successfully pushing for a referendum on the issue.

The stated aim of the part sale of these assets is to free up $10 billion (NZD) to reduce government debt and establish a surplus by 2013/2014. In relation to the sales Prime Minister John Key stated, “Weaker global growth, particularly in our key export markets in Asia and Australia, will put downward pressure on the demand for our exports. That will have a real and noticeable effect on the New Zealand economy, which is expected to grow somewhat slower than was predicted at the end of 2011.”

This demonstrates the connection between the world economic crisis and the asset sales. It shows that the ruling National Party is prepared to carry out policies which force ordinary people to pay for the impact of the world economic crisis.

One point of resistance has been the significant demonstrations in New Zealand’s major cities and a hikoi (in te reo Maori language this generally means a march or parade lasting for a number of days). The hikoi was organised by prominent Maori activists such as Mike Smith and by the Mana Party – a party that came about as a left split from the Maori Party because of its collaboration with the National Party-led Government.

The hikoi began at the top of the North Island in April 2012 and after 11 days reached the parliament in Wellington. Within the hikoi there were local marches through the major centres – including an 8,000 strong march in Auckland and a 5,000 strong march in Wellington – which left and socialist organisations had helped to organise.

The ‘Aotearoa Not For Sale’ coalition was prominent in the Auckland demonstration. The presence of large numbers of locked-out meat processing workers, including a large contingent in Hamilton and a speaker at the rally outside parliament, helped to draw the connection between employer attacks on workers and the governments’ attack on public assets.

Another point of resistance has been the united action of Maori people. A One News poll found that while 75% of people opposed asset sales the number amongst Maori people was 88%.

To facilitate the sales the government introduced the Public Finance (Mixed Ownership Model) Amendment Act 2012 and sought to place assets under that Act – removing them from the State-Owned Enterprises Act 1986.

The 1986 SOE Act, introduced by the Labour Party, was entirely regressive in that it transformed public services into entities run as corporations for profit. However, it contained the provision that “Nothing in this Act shall permit the Crown to act in a manner that is inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.” This is seen to provide protection against asset sales because Maori land and resource claims made in accordance with The Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 binds the Crown not private companies.

The government held several sham consultation meetings with Maori about the changes. However, frustrated by the charade of consultation, Maori called a national hui (meeting) involving Iwi (the largest social unit in Maori culture) leaders, Maori corporations, urban Maori authorities and others.

Being in a coalition with National, the Maori Party was reluctant to attend the hui. But after being ridiculed by Maori people for its position it ended up sending a delegation. At the hui Annette Sykes, president of the Mana Party, advocated that the sales be ‘halted for good’. The hui resulted in agreement against the sales across the overwhelming majority of Maori entities. The government responded by announcing a ‘Shares Plus’ scheme which would entitle Maori Iwi to cheaper shares in an attempt to lure the leaders into supporting the sales. This was roundly rejected.

The NZ Maori Council also filed a High Court application for a judicial review of government decisions to remove Mighty River Power from the SOE Act and place 49% of its shares on the stock market in the third quarter of 2012. Mighty River was to be the first asset to be floated.

The application was made on the basis that the government’s actions interfered with Maori water rights. The legal action successfully stalled the sale. The High Court then ruled against the NZ Maori Council which has subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court where a hearing is set down for early 2013. The Mana Party’s Annette Sykes, herself a prominent Maori lawyer who has been very involved in the proceedings has been careful to emphasise that this legal process can slow down the sales but the only way to win a political solution will be through struggle.

One aspect of the struggle is the ‘Keep Our Assets’ campaign to get over 300,000 people to sign a petition in favour of a referendum against the sales. Despite supporting privatisations previously the Labour Party have bent to the public mood and are participating in the campaign. The Greens are playing a prominent role in the campaign but are really using it to boost their own electoral fortunes. They do not offer an economic alternative to capitalism which is why they refuse to pledge to renationalise the assets if they are in a position of power after the next election.

Trade unions, community groups, the Mana Party and socialist organisations have also energetically supported the campaign. Opportunistically the conservative NZ First Party has also been involved in this campaign. In January it was announced that the campaign has got over 300,000 signatures and that a referendum is should go ahead.

While socialists have serious differences with the pro-capitalist forces that are involved in this campaign, we participate in order to present the strongest possible opposition to the government’s plans. While working to stop this round of attacks we also point out that it was the Labour Party that was behind the first round of privatisations of assets in the mid-1980s.

We also explain that the right-wing nationalism of NZ First and the soft left nationalism of other elements in the campaign will only work to divide ordinary people. The best way to win is to employ a strategy that unites all sections of the working class – the class with the most latent power in society.

The problem that working class people in New Zealand have is that they are currently without a mass party that can bring them together and represent them in the parliament and in the various struggles that are taking place.

People’s attitude to the Labour opposition was highlighted in a recent TV3-Reid Research Poll where its leader, David Shearer, was polling a mere 8.5%! The crisis in Labour is rooted in the fact that most people see them as no different to National. This opens up huge opportunities for a party to the left of Labour to grow.

Given the deep seated opposition to asset sales it makes sense for trade unions, community groups and left parties like Mana to put forward a bold political alternative to privatisation. This should include fighting for the total public ownership of the major sectors of the economy under democratic workers’ and community control. This could be won by uniting all sections of the working class in New Zealand into a mass struggle.

Public rallies are a good first step but if they were combined with widespread industrial action the government would not only be forced to reverse its plans but it could be brought down quickly. On the basis of public ownership of big industry and the banks a democratic plan of production could be implemented to grow the economy while simultaneously creating jobs and building the homes and services that society needs.

This is the type of future we need to fight for in New Zealand as opposed to allowing whichever establishment party is in power to make us pay for an economic crisis that we did not create.