The NZ Herald editorial:
Courage in politics too often goes unnoticed, especially when it requires silence. Auckland’s mayor has shown remarkable courage over the past week, resisting pressure to call the Auckland Council’s port company to heel in the current dispute. Some of that pressure has been exerted in public, by commentators, union leaders and a protest march in sympathy with the sacked watersiders that the Labour Party’s leader saw fit to attend. But just as much pressure will have been coming on him in private, from Labour members of the Auckland Council and party activists who helped him get elected.
The latest challenge for the Mayor is one of the Labour Councillors, Richard Northey, has moved a motion to have a Council committee declare opposition to the Ports restructuring, which would humiliate Len Brown if it passes.
The contractual stevedoring arrangements the company wants to make would match those its nearest rival, the Port of Tauranga, has enjoyed for many years.
They were introduced at Tauranga without the strife that has disrupted the Auckland port for so long now, and members of the Maritime Union are still employed on Tauranga’s wharves.
The Port of Tauranga is only part-owned by its local authority. There can be little doubt partial privatisation makes a difference. Boards of directors can more easily resist political pressure when they owe a duty to private as well as public shareholders. More important perhaps, trade unions know this. They cannot as readily bring political pressure to bear in a dispute.
This is absolutely true. The union becomes far less reasonable, because it has lackeys on the local authority who will interfere on their behalf.
The other advantage of the PoT model is that it allows the employees to become share-holders, as 90% of stevedores at Tauranga are.
The best argument for a partial sale of Ports of Auckland Ltd would be intervention by the mayor and council in this dispute.
Mr Brown knows this very well. It is he, almost alone in public now, who is doing the most to show that assets in full public ownership need not be a pushover in labour bargaining. This is the first step, and probably a necessary one, on the path to proving that assets in public ownership can be competitive with private enterprise in every way.
If Northey wins the vote, it will be a classic case of politicians interfering to benefit their donors and supporters.
All of them are at least half-owned by local councils. Had they been fully privatised there is no doubt we would have seen mergers and rationalisation that would have produced better returns for private shareholders, more efficient transport networks for the whole country and more bargaining strength for the ports in negotiations with shipping companies.
If this sort of rationalisation is possible with ports in council ownership, the largest port will need to lead the way. If Ports of Auckland Ltd can get close to the rate of return the mayor has set, it will be in a more dominant position than it has ever been.
But that all depends now on Mr Brown’s courage. Can he see it through?
This is a huge test for Len. Can he defeat Northey?
On the issue of too many ports, that is a view shared by the PM:
A concession from the Prime Minister that the country may have too many ports.
The drawn out and often acrimonious Auckland port dispute has spawned calls for the number of ports to be culled.
John Key’s giving some thought to suggestions we’re overloaded in the unloading business, and he says the Productivity Commissioner is looking at the overall structure.
“In the end the truth of it is if we have too many ports then they won’t be financially viable and some will close,” he told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking.
Mr Key says Ports of Auckland is losing business to Tauranga because Tauranga is more efficient.
And as the editorial notes, the ownership model stops there being a sensible rationalisation, where a 10% cut in transport costs would add $1.5b to the economy.
, Len Brown
, NZ Herald
, Ports of Auckland