Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

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Auckland's Airport: "whatever it takes" to win


A few weeks ago in a speech at Waiuku, south of Auckland, I spoke of the "whatever it takes" mentality that the Labour Party uses these days when they campaign for re-election. They overspent by $800,000 in 2005, the money coming from the taxpayers. The Police wouldn't prosecute, but Labour was shamed into paying it back. This time, after crimping their opponents' efforts with the Electoral Finance Act, Labour's ministers intend spending more of our money on their own electioneering. Whatever it takes. It is also clear that they are now happy to sink the value of privately-held shares in public companies if they perceive any short term political advantage for themselves. Single-handedly, David Cunliffe knocked hundreds of millions off the value of shares in Telecom held by New Zealanders. Yesterday, in the middle of a share-purchasing process, came a ham-fisted tightening of overseas investment rules in what Michael Cullen deems (without defining the term) a "strategic asset". That move cut many millions off the value of Auckland Airport's shares held by mums and pops around this country. Fortunately my wife and I don't own any airport shares, but current ministers will happily damage the personal assets of people who have been saving for old age if they get in the road of Labour's re-election. Do you believe Helen Clark and Michael Cullen when they say we should save? If you do, you are a fool. They'll destroy the value of your savings on a political whim.

Michael Cullen, Phil Goff and Helen Clark were ministers in the Fourth Labour Government between 1984 and 1990. I was one of their colleagues. In order to rescue the debt-burdened country we had inherited we sold several key assets and paid the money off against debt, thus leaving the government with a smaller interest bill each year. That meant more was available for public investment in health and education. Cullen, Goff, Clark and I voted to sell an unbundled, publicly-owned Telecom at a huge price, much more than we expected to get at the time. Americans were the principal buyers. Helen Clark was then Deputy Prime Minister. She and the rest of us also voted for the establishment of airport companies from the publicly-owned airfields. We all knew at the time that what the Labour government was doing was correct, and in the best long-term interests of the country. We made those decisions in election year, consciously knowing that not everyone agreed. Once upon a time, Cullen Clark and Goff possessed guts and were driven by principles; they were capable of making the correct decision, not pandering to the views of those who couldn't come to grips with what was in the country's best interests.

No longer. Each of those ministers knows that trying mid-stream to block a Canadian minority bid for shares in the airport is wrong, and that they are destroying New Zealanders' wealth. They also know they are passing a signal to the wider financial world that instead of being governed by honorable, predictable politicians, New Zealand has fallen into the hands of financial buffoons. They don't care. If this means that overseas investors pull out and won't invest here any longer, why worry? They'll do whatever it takes to stay in office.

There is no valid argument against the purchase by foreigners of shares in New Zealand's companies. Kiwis can purchase shares abroad. At least one New Zealand company has significant interests in European airports. Why can't Canadians buy into ours? After all, they can't uplift the airport or the buildings and take them away. The Canadians can't stop us flying planes. If the airport were to change its operations or its inter-airline dealings in a manner that was anti-competitive, or not in New Zealand's best interests, then New Zealand's Commerce Commission would be down on them like a ton of bricks. And behind the Commerce Commission is the power of the government - something that should only be used in dire emergencies - to legislate against anything not in the country's best interests. A bid for a minority share in Auckland Airport by a Canadian pension fund most certainly doesn't fit that category.

Ministers are playing on the economic and political ignorance of voters. The New Zealand Herald this morning rightly labels them guilty of "xenophobia". Whipping up a populist storm against foreign control is an old political game. The fascists did it in the 1920s, the Nazis in the 1930s. Anti-Semitism and racism are linked to this kind of selective opposition to concepts that people don't understand, and therefore instinctively oppose. This government is guilty of the worst kind of political cynicism.

There are times these days when the modern Labour Party seems beneath contempt. Be warned. There is worse to come. Because of the opinion polls, ministers are desperate and will do anything to hold on to office. "Whatever it takes".