OPINION

There remain far too many unanswered questions behind the proposed sale of Hawke's Bay's port to know whether it's a good idea or not – and that alone says that it isn't.

For example, regardless freight is expanding and new berths may be needed, given the main projected increase is in "bulk cargo", how does that translate to needing a "deep water" berth that can take megaships when those are not the ones that handle logs and bulk goods?

Besides, what makes the Port company think megaships will come to Napier, as opposed to Auckland or Tauranga or Wellington – or for that matter Melbourne, since it's quite possible the whole of New Zealand could be bypassed when it comes to determining a regional megaship "hub".

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Yet even knowing government is in the process of revising a national shipping strategy that fits with what the shipping companies want and will likely consign Napier to being a coastal "feeder" port, this proposal is going ahead on the apparent assumption Napier can somehow "stand alone".

I've asked three councillors about this and had three different answers.

One very parochially said he didn't care what government said, they'd follow their own plan regardless. A second said they hadn't talked with government in any detail, and agreed they probably should.

And the third said people in Wellington were "totally in the picture" and had shown "no sign of apprehension" over the port being part-sold and expanded.

Whose version is correct? If there's a problem fitting the Napier plan to the new strategy, we won't know until after this (HBRC) decision is made, and since councillors seem at odds among themselves as to consequence, no choice can be assumed to be right.

Moreover the real driver of the sale concept is not building a new wharf. Since they say they can fund that anyway so long as their debt is repackaged, for the council it seems to be the opportunity to create a substantial environmental investment fund.

Accepting that need, one path might be to take council's "Option C" – sale of a stake to a strategic partner – but modify it to nominate that partner as being a publicly-owned entity (such as Unison).

Add in a buyback "Bay-share" provision to prevent the shares being privatised, and you have a solution that could tick every box.

Re-directing some or all of the annual dividend could further enable a fund of the size the council envisages. The port's directors will just have to put up with being arm's-length public servants.

Contrast the idea of some sort of "grower's consortium" being the buy-in partner; that may sound attractive, but apart from the public losing control of any shares sold, why would growers buy a business that only profits more at their expense?

That's two competing bites of the same cherry, cancelling each other out.

However what most concerns me is the political risk in this proposal, since any change in seats could endanger HBRC's progressive environmental programme.

Most tellingly during this consultation, those around the table who you would think "natural" pro-sale councillors – Fenton Wilson, Neil Kirton, and Alan Dick – have been virtually silent.

Not because they don't favour a sale – my belief is they do.

But their notable absence when it comes to selling the deal publicly to my mind says they're happy for others to front it - and maybe get shot for it.

Because that would swing things back their way next year. And then, Ruataniwha Mark II, anyone?

* Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet. Views expressed are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's.