Fran O'Sullivan: No need to play hostage to Rio Tinto

Negotiations ought to remain between power company and smelter, and if they fail the country will cope.

It's inevitable, says O'Sullivan, that both Key and Rio Tinto will be deploying an element of bluff and spin. Photo / Supplied
It's inevitable, says O'Sullivan, that both Key and Rio Tinto will be deploying an element of bluff and spin. Photo / Supplied

Here's a thought: Why don't John Key and David Parker come up with a common front towards Rio Tinto to send a message to the Tiwai Point owner that playing off successive NZ governments to drive down power costs for a smelter that supposedly doesn't cut the financial mustard is a futile strategy?

Behind the scenes both Key and Parker (who is Labour's rational voice on this issue) appear to agree on one thing. That - as Parker puts it - there are important interests involved with the Tiwai smelter which go beyond Meridian's power contract.

"They include the employment of the many workers and contractors at the site and the wider effect on the region's economy, the effect that decreasing export sales would have on our current account deficit, as well as the effect on power prices and SOE sale values."

Key will have a different interpretation to Parker on the impact of a potential Tiwai Point wind-down on the SOE sales process.

But it is instructive that the Prime Minister is now saying publicly that he doesn't really believe that if Rio Tinto, the 80 per cent owner of Pacific Aluminium (Japan's Sumitomo holds the other 20 per cent), walks away, that it will have a major effect on next month's Mighty River Power float.

For one thing, bringing negotiations out into the open means that Mighty River Power can now flag the potential for a wind-down of the smelter, and the electricity it uses, in the contingent risks in the upcoming MRP prospectus.

It's inevitable that both Key and Rio Tinto will be deploying an element of bluff and spin as the respective shareholders send the negotiations back to Meridian and Pacific Aluminium.

In my view this is where they belong.

But judging by the statement that the Labour finance spokesman released at the weekend there is not really that much daylight between the Government and the Labour opposition on this issue, except for the usual politicking over the SOE asset sales programme and a demand that Key is more transparent in his dealings with foreign companies.

Parker cites the UFB contract, the Warner Brothers' deal and the SkyCity Entertainment "pokies for convention centre" proposal as cases in point.

It's well-known that Key played an integral role in discussions with both Warner Brothers and SkyCity.

What's not so well-known is that it is the Prime Minister who has been at the sharp end of discussions with Rio Tinto, not SOE Minister Tony Ryall.

It was Key who picked up the phone to play hardball with Rio Tinto's Australian managing director David Peevers after Meridian said its talks with Pacific Aluminium had failed to reach accord on a new power price.

The background is that Meridian had been approached by Pacific Aluminium, a business unit of global mining giant Rio Tinto (and the majority shareholder of New Zealand Aluminium Smelters), in July 2012 to discuss potential changes to its existing electricity contract.

As Meridian chief executive Mark Binns made clear last week since talks began, various options have been discussed and Meridian has offered a number of changes and concessions to the existing contract. Meridian has advised Pacific Aluminium of its bottom-line position.

"Despite significant effort by both parties there remains a major gap between us on a number of issues, such that we believe that it is unlikely a new agreement can be reached with Pacific Aluminium."

Rio Tinto and the Key Government have different objectives.

Earlier on Monday, Key told this correspondent he had delivered Peevers a message that the game was up - it would be see you later if Rio Tinto tried to leverage up the potential short-term smoothing payment the Government was prepared to pony up to help the smelter through a period of lower aluminium prices into a long-term contract. Key knew Peevers from business days.

But it's instructive that John Key found out by fax later Monday evening that Rio Tinto had basically said, 'thanks but no thanks' to his offer.

The talks have been kicked downstairs again. And Key can and will say the Government has done its best.

Where Key and Parker are on the same page is their shared view that even if Rio Tinto does ultimately walk away from the smelter, having a large block of renewable energy come on to the market is not necessarily a bad thing.

It would enable major CO2 emitting power stations to be retired and could be a major attraction for offshore capital to invest in other energy intensive industries like wood-processing, data centres and the like.

Clearly having one-seventh of NZ's current electricity production on the market at once could prove problematic. In the first place transmission generation would have to be upgraded to get it to the North Island.

But it could remarkably change the energy profile for New Zealand.

Yesterday, Key acknowledged this reality by saying the current negotiations were in the short-term an issue - "we've got power there and jobs" - but over time Meridian could get the power out and make more money from it.

He dismisses Pacific Aluminium's timing - it endeavoured to game the Government by launching its call for new negotiations after the Mighty River Power partial asset sale was flagged - saying it had tried the same thing on an Australian State Government which was not going through a privatisation programme. But unlike the Australians, the Government was not going to be dealt to.

Key is also conscious that Rio Tinto will not be able to walk away from its 'take or pay' contracts without fulfilling them. Not only would it be immoral, but it would be a travesty given the 'sanctity of contracts' position the global metals giant has taken in its current stoush with the Mongolian Government which wants to extract higher royalties.

Key maintains the negotiations aren't over "til they are over".

But there is a silver lining in this stoush which is worth considering.

In the longer-term powering up many different plants for new industries here with renewable energy makes more sense than being hostage to one company which imports bauxite from Australia to send elsewhere.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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