COMMENT: The global mining giant Rio Tinto coughs and this country's power companies catch a $2 billion cold. That's the amount of money wiped off their balance sheets following yet another threat hanging over the future of the Tiwai Pt aluminium smelter, Southland's biggest employer by a country mile.
Why have the companies' shareholders got the shivers? The smelter uses 13 per cent of the country's electricity and if they close down their pot lines, cheap electricity will flood the market meaning profits will be lower.
That's just one of the reasons why power generators want the smelter to continue. But the biggest reason should be for the people of Southland where 1000 jobs would be directly at stake with a flow on to 3500 people dependent on the flow-on opportunities of the business.
Tiwai Pt gets a cut price power deal from Meridian, from the nearby Manapouri hydro plant that's been supplying it for almost 50 years.
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There's now yet another threat from Rio Tinto to close the plant. The last one was six years ago when it said it'd be shutting up shop at the end of 2016, but decided against it after the Key Government came to the table with $30 million and with a warning from Bill English that it'd be the last bite at the cherry.
That's been cottoned on to by the current Energy Minister Megan Woods who says she's willing to speak to the Anglo-Australian owned company but insists there's no more money in the kitty. This from a Government that's doling out $3 billion through the Provincial Growth Fund and from Governments, including the current one, that have spent well over half a billion dollars over the past nine years to keep the movie makers in town.
And it seems the king of the provinces Winston Peters, who railed against the Key Government bailout as corporate welfare, has had a change of heart. Peters says the Beehive should look at it through a fresh set of eyes, which presumably means it's time for Woods to pay a visit to the optometrist.
The New Zealand First leader rightly says those eyes should be looking at the workforce and the wider interests of Southland which is the number one exporter in the country, thanks to the smelter.
Whether those eyes should be on the cheque book again though, is another matter. Being the biggest electricity user in the country, perhaps they should start shopping around like the rest of us.
But could it be that Rio Tinto's simply calling the Government's bluff. It worked last time, but clearly for Southlanders, and maybe for Winston Peters, it's not worth taking the risk.