So, now we know. When the Prime
Minister said last year, in respect of the proposed sale of the Crafar farms to the Chinese, that New Zealanders would not
want to be “tenants in their own land”, it was a statement “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
The Prime Minister tells us now that it would be – and in that
case presumably always has been – illegal to stop the sale; he thereby reinforces a pattern that has become all too
familiar – a pattern of broad assurances designed to allay public concerns on various issues, followed by periods of
obfuscation, and then explanations as to why the assurances could not be acted upon.
So, for example, the government was to insist that the recovery of the bodies from the Pike
River mine must be an inescapable commitment from any new owner; it now seems likely that will mean no more than that new
owners must have a “plan” to be implemented (only if possible) at some indeterminate date in the future.
And so too, expectations are now being scaled down in respect of the
commitment - so often trumpeted as confirmation of the government’s financial rectitude - to return government finances
to surplus by 2014. That, we are now told, is in doubt because the global economy has – in a way
that had somehow escaped the attention of the forecasters – proved to be in a parlous state.
And what of the assurances repeatedly given by the Prime Minister that the public
assets his government now proposes to sell will somehow remain in New Zealand hands? Is it now not clear
that we will in due course be told – when the assets have passed into foreign hands – that it would have been
“illegal” to discriminate against foreign bidders?
There are of course many points that can be made in respect of those asset sales. Who can doubt,
for example, that – just like an individual – a government that sells off an income-producing asset in order to
spend the proceeds should be regarded as behaving somewhat imprudently. How, in other words, does the government
propose to make good the hole in their finances when they no longer receive the income from the assets they have sold?
And the more we are assured – for the
purpose of raising their market value - that the assets offer an investment that is secure, long-term, virtually inflation-proofed,
and guaranteeing a good return, the more the question is begged – wouldn’t that investment be equally valuable
and attractive in the hands of those who currently own them?
It is of course true that the New Zealand capital market would be enlarged, at least in the short term, if a major
new range of investments became available. But we should surely pause to wonder why our capital market
is so small and weak. The answer is that most of what were once New Zealand assets of comparable size and
stability have long ago passed (via privatisation) into foreign ownership; and the further sale of what remains in public
ownership seems certain to add to that longstanding trend.
can, of course, expect a familiar response from the Prime Minister to the latest difficulty to arise in respect of asset sales
– the belief that new private owners will not accept obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi in their management of
what were public assets. John Key will assure Maori that they will lose nothing from removing those statutory
obligations – and by the time they discover otherwise, it will be too late.
But the Maori stance on asset sales is instructive for another reason as well. Iwi have declared
their intention of investing in the assets. They are clear that they will invest for the long term.
They will hold their shares in trust for future generations. They will take seats on the boards
of the enterprises so as to make the most of the influence their shareholding will give them.
Most people, I guess, would nod in approval of all of these propositions - but they constitute,
of course, the clearest possible statement of the argument for not selling the assets in the first place.
The advantages sought by Maori are precisely the advantages currently
enjoyed by all of us but which the asset sales would deny us. So, why is something that is clearly so valuable
to Maori apparently of no consequence or value to the rest of us? The Prime Minister might be asked for
Why are Maori able to look to a leadership
that takes the long view and has a proper sense of its obligations to the common interest and future generations?
Why do the rest of us have to make do with a leadership that looks at worst to an ideological prejudice against public
ownership and at best to a short-term boost to the balance sheet that will quickly be outweighed by the all-too-familiar burden
of paying the profits across the foreign exchanges to overseas owners?
1 February 2012