Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Politicians in a muddle over Tiwai Pt smelter

The aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point. Photo / NZ Herald
The aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point. Photo / NZ Herald

If you're looking for clear positions on the future of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, it's no use looking to the politicians. The parliamentary parties and their leaders have been in an ideological muddle over the issue, showing no real leadership, clarity or vision.

This is partly because today's political parties - especially National, Labour and now the Greens - cling to the safe, muddy middle of the political spectrum and have little intellectual content or analysis to offer. Instead it's been the political and business commentators with more interesting and analytical views on the future of the industry. The latest insightful discussion is provided by Jane Clifton in her Listener politics column Helter Smelter - Clifton's column is normally only viewable online for subscribers, but is unlocked for the rest of today. (Also relevant to the debate is Ruth Laugesen's excellent Listener feature on the electricity industry, Power struggle, albeit not unlocked).

Interestingly, it's also been the more radical left and right commentators offering clarity on the issue.

Essentially the neoliberal right and the anti-capitalist left are those with the most to offer the debate. Fran O'Sullivan has been leading the charge from the right, with two excellent columns that argue in favour of the Government keeping out of the issue, and letting the market sort this out - see: No need to play hostage to Rio Tinto and Govt intervention doesn't cut mustard. This has been bolstered by others on the right like John Roughan with Perfect chance to can Tiwai and David Farrar with The best deal is no deal.

Undoubtedly there's also a rising anti-corporate attitude towards the smelter owners. This is best reflected by radical leftist John Minto in his blogpost, Sometimes it's an embarrassment to be a New Zealander. But others have expressed similarly strong opposition to the Government kow-towing to corporate interests - see, in particular, Colin Espiner's Time to call Tiwai smelter's Bluff, and the Herald's No need for servility in Tiwai Pt talks.

But are the smelter's owners really the enemy playing 'hardball'? An opposing view is strongly expressed in Collette Devlin's article, Tiwai smelter defenders blame Meridian. According to the head of the Southland Chamber of Commerce, 'If anybody was getting the short end of the stick, it would appear to be the smelter', and it's the Government and Meridian playing hardball. Therefore a closure or sale is looking increasingly likely. So, could the smelter be revived by its sale? Tim Watkin ponders this issue in a thoughtful blogpost and ends up proposing that it be purchased by either Ngai Tahu or the Superannuation Fund - see: The Beehive political smelter.

The inevitable death of the smelter is increasingly reflected in much of the commentary at the moment. Even Southland Mayor Tim Shadbolt says it's not a question of 'if' but of 'when', and the region simply has to start preparing for a smelter-less future - see Terri Russell's Smelter 'wake-up call' says Shadbolt. The Southland Times also suggests as much in its sober editorial, Tiwai's twilight years. Business journalist Pattrick Smellie also says that the aluminium industry has changed too much in recent years, and there simply is no viable future for it in Southland - see: Time coming to kiss smelter goodbye.

Some analysts have suggested that the Government is likely to solve the problem by secretly pressuring the Meridian board to compromise and give Rio Tinto a further discount - this is best put by David Hargreaves in his column, Govt apparently leaves it up to SOE Meridian to stitch up a deal with Rio Tinto. Hargreaves points out that such an approach would be work for the Government, but be wrong and unfair on Meridian and the public.

For National, there are other hazards. The most obvious is the risk that lower power prices (even if they are years away) pose to the partial sale of the state owned power companies. Business journalist Tim Hunter looks closely at the numbers for and against a subsidy and concludes that 'Ryall's announcement smacks more of political panic than rational policy' - see: No time to 'bridge the gap' for Rio Tinto.

Of course the Government could argue that, contrary to Labour's claims that it is too 'hands off,' the deals with Warner Brothers and SkyCity show that it is prepared to muck in to save or create jobs if needed. The problem is that it seems only multinational corporations qualify. As the Waikato Times editorial points out, Dunedin's Hillside rail workers and the West Coast's coal miners (all employed by SOEs) got a very different message about subsidies when their jobs disappeared - see: The intervention game.

And the issues at stake are ones that the Government cannot ignore writes John Armstrong: 'It is National's misfortune that the smelter's future impacts on the two most crucial issues currently confronting the Government; first, creating jobs, not culling them; second, partial privatisation' - see: PM shows hardball a game for two. It's possibly for this reason that John Key was quick to intervene last week. As Gordon Campbell argues in his blogpost, On the smelter fiasco, and its impact on the asset sales programme, the short-lived negotiations might well have been purely about image management - to give the public the appearance that National was actually doing something about the problem.

While Labour's Clayton Cosgrove has been hitting the asset sales angle hard, Labour's attempt to portray itself as a party of 'hands-on' economic policy makes its position on a subsidy for the smelter unclear - see the NBR's Gimme smelter? Labour confused over Tiwai bailout and Pete George's Labour's conflicting priorities with Tiwai. With the Labour-affiliated union, the EPMU, calling for more government action to save the jobs (EPMU says smelter jobs worth fighting for), Labour is also caught between pragmatism and their rhetoric.

Economics and ideology seem to favour the anti-capitalist left and the neo-liberal right but both John Key and David Shearer have to survive within the far more mushy ground of pragmatic politics, made all the mushier by their own inconsistent actions and rhetoric in the recent past.

Many commentators point out that the smelter closure and resulting surplus electricity, while devastating for Southland and power company profits, would be great for consumers as well as reducing our carbon emissions massively in one hit - see Brian Fallow's Life without the smelter? It's a big change. But Fallow has followed that up today with an opposing view, saying that its too simplistic to assume that the closure of the smelter would produce cheaper power for the rest of the country - see: Manapouri power vital resource.

The search is now going on for replacement industries for Southland. One of the more interesting proposals has been that 'Cloud computing data centres could make use of New Zealand's capable workforce, cheap power and land' - see Paul Brislen's Rio exit could have a silver lining.

Finally, for more frivolous, yet insightful, views on all of these issues, see my blogpost posts, Images of the power struggle between the Govt and Rio Tinto and Tweets about the power struggle between the Govt and Rio Tinto. And for a parody of the issues at stake, see The Civilian's Government hopes to sweeten Rio Tinto deal with chocolate fish.

Other recent important or interesting items include the following:

The John Key-GCSB scandal rolls on, with the PM labelling the media reporting on the story as 'knuckle heads', and declaring he will no longer discuss the issue - see Hamish Rutherford's John Key changes tact over questioning. The other most interesting new news items are Claire Trevett's PM put mate's case for job in 2009, and Kurt Bayer's Spy-chief's brother Key's debating buddy.

Toby Manhire asks a number of good questions about the case in his column, Is John Key compromised?. Tim Watkin suggests that voters will be pondering Key's trustworthiness - see: A week of withdrawals from Key's trust account. And Kate Shuttleworth investigates the general issue of political forgetfulness Politics: A convenient loss of memory.

Grant Robertson has been leading the charge against Key, and his latest blogpost on the issue, Diminish, Divert, Demean- John Key's MO, is impressively comprehensive and substantive, showing that sometimes MPs can use blogging properly. On the No Right Turn blog, the claims by Key and the SSC that they have been within the rules is challenged - see: Not OK.

The best satirical accounts of the latest Key-GCSB scandal are Will de Cleene's Escape from Castle Wolfensohn, Scott Yorke's A crisis of recollection, but why?, and The Civilian's Prime Minister faces questions over appointment of teddy bear to GCSB. But sometimes the funniest political material is real - see Dan Satherley's Twitter 'banned' at spy news conference.

Chris Trotter is angry. Find out why in his column about the upcoming Constitutional Review debates - see: Twee 'debate' an opportunity missed. Steven Price provides further details of what's being discussed, in Live public debates on our Constitution. And Morgan Godfery makes the case for accepting that the Treaty is already in the constitution - see: The Treaty of Waitangi: an ode to Muriel Newman and the NZCPR. In another post, Godfery discusses who will be fighting it out in the seven (and possibly eight) Maori seats next year - see: The Maori seats: surveying the field.

The health of New Zealand's democracy is once again endorsed by The Economist, with the latest Democracy Index ranking the country 5th in the world - see: Global democracy at a standstill. The index measures countries on their electoral process, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture.

Radio New Zealand is the last bastion of dissent from the rightwing revolution taking over New Zealand since the 1980s, and that's why it's now under threat. That's the argument from Chris Trotter, in reply to Karl du Fresne's allegations of a leftwing bias at RNZ- see: Defending The Revolution: Karl du Fresne Calls Radio NZ On Its "Left-Wing Bias".

Most of us have probably sent the wrong attachment in an email but losing a file with crucial evidence in a $30 million fraud case is a new low for the public service - see Steve Kilgallon's Bungling officials squander whistleblower's pokies help. Will we see more blunders as core public sector jobs continue to be reduced? - see Tracy Watkins' Public service cuts put workers under pressure - PSA.

The Government's cyber-bullying legislation has been announced. Steven Price generally approves in Digital harrassment remedies coming, while No Right Turn does not - see: The return of criminal libel.

Claims of racism are being made over the justice system - this time in response to TV3's 3rd Degree story: Was Teina Pora wrongly jailed?. The Maori Party are campaigning on the issue, with both co-leaders labelling the case an example of 'institutionalised racism' - see Dan Satherley's Sharples wants 'urgency' in Pora case. Cathy Odgers sees the situation very differently: 'Institutionalised racism? Really?... Nothing like a call of faux racism to get the politics going in a campaign is there? The Maori Party reborn?' - see: Pora Family Sniffs Mora.

Finally, the bill has arrived. Matthew Theunissen reports that, along with ten kiwi military deaths, the war in Afghanistan has cost New Zealand about $300 million. He notes that the big question is less what they have achieved while they were there, but how long it will last once they are gone - see: Afghanistan war costs top $300m.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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