Tens of thousands challenge asset sales


This article by Jared Phillips, member of Fightback, was originally published by the Socialist Party of Australia.


At the beginning of 2011 the ruling National Party in New Zealand (Aotearoa) announced electoral policy for the partial sale of several major state assets including the Solid Energy coal company, Air New Zealand, and three major power companies – Mighty River Power, Meridian Energy, and Genesis Energy.

After its re-election and the formation of a coalition government with the ACT party and the Maori Party in late-2011, the government has pursued the sale despite the policy being very unpopular.

A TV3 poll conducted in early 2012 found that only 35% of people surveyed agreed with the sales while 3.5% were unsure and 63% opposed the sales. As a consequence a broad opposition of diverse forces has formed and driven a struggle on the streets, in the courts, and by successfully pushing for a referendum on the issue.

The stated aim of the part sale of these assets is to free up $10 billion (NZD) to reduce government debt and establish a surplus by 2013/2014. In relation to the sales Prime Minister John Key stated, “Weaker global growth, particularly in our key export markets in Asia and Australia, will put downward pressure on the demand for our exports. That will have a real and noticeable effect on the New Zealand economy, which is expected to grow somewhat slower than was predicted at the end of 2011.”

This demonstrates the connection between the world economic crisis and the asset sales. It shows that the ruling National Party is prepared to carry out policies which force ordinary people to pay for the impact of the world economic crisis.


One point of resistance has been the significant demonstrations in New Zealand’s major cities and a hikoi. The hikoi was organised by prominent Maori activists such as Mike Smith and by the Mana Party – a party that came about as a left split from the Maori Party because of its collaboration with the National Party-led Government.

The hikoi began at the top of the North Island in April 2012 and after 11 days reached the parliament in Wellington. Within the hikoi there were local marches through the major centres – including an 8,000 strong march in Auckland and a 5,000 strong march in Wellington – which left and socialist organisations had helped to organise.

The ‘Aotearoa Not For Sale’ coalition was prominent in the Auckland demonstration. The presence of large numbers of locked-out meat processing workers, including a large contingent in Hamilton and a speaker at the rally outside parliament, helped to draw the connection between employer attacks on workers and the governments’ attack on public assets.


Another point of resistance has been the united action of Maori people. A One News poll found that while 75% of people opposed asset sales the number amongst Maori people was 88%.

To facilitate the sales the government introduced the Public Finance (Mixed Ownership Model) Amendment Act 2012 and sought to place assets under that Act – removing them from the State-Owned Enterprises Act 1986.

The 1986 SOE Act, introduced by the Labour Party, was entirely regressive in that it transformed public services into entities run as corporations for profit. However, it contained the provision that “Nothing in this Act shall permit the Crown to act in a manner that is inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.” This is seen to provide protection against asset sales because Maori land and resource claims made in accordance with The Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 binds the Crown not private companies.

The government held several sham consultation meetings with Maori about the changes. However, frustrated by the charade of consultation, Maori called a national hui involving Iwi leaders, Maori corporations, urban Maori authorities and others.

Being in a coalition with National, the Maori Party was reluctant to attend the hui. But after being ridiculed by Maori people for its position it ended up sending a delegation. At the hui Annette Sykes, president of the Mana Party, advocated that the sales be ‘halted for good’. The hui resulted in agreement against the sales across the overwhelming majority of Maori entities. The government responded by announcing a ‘Shares Plus’ scheme which would entitle Maori Iwi to cheaper shares in an attempt to lure the leaders into supporting the sales. This was roundly rejected.

The NZ Maori Council also filed a High Court application for a judicial review of government decisions to remove Mighty River Power from the SOE Act and place 49% of its shares on the stock market in the third quarter of 2012. Mighty River was to be the first asset to be floated.

asians supporting tino

The application was made on the basis that the government’s actions interfered with Maori water rights. The legal action successfully stalled the sale. The High Court then ruled against the NZ Maori Council which has subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court where a hearing is set down for early 2013. The Mana Party’s Annette Sykes, herself a prominent Maori lawyer who has been very involved in the proceedings has been careful to emphasise that this legal process can slow down the sales but the only way to win a political solution will be through struggle.

One aspect of the struggle is the ‘Keep Our Assets’ campaign to get over 300,000 people to sign a petition in favour of a referendum against the sales. Despite supporting privatisations previously the Labour Party have bent to the public mood and are participating in the campaign. The Greens are playing a prominent role in the campaign but are really using it to boost their own electoral fortunes. They do not offer an economic alternative to capitalism which is why they refuse to pledge to renationalise the assets if they are in a position of power after the next election.

Trade unions, community groups, the Mana Party and socialist organisations have also energetically supported the campaign. Opportunistically the conservative NZ First Party has also been involved in this campaign. In January it was announced that the campaign has got over 300,000 signatures and that a referendum is should go ahead.

While socialists have serious differences with the pro-capitalist forces that are involved in this campaign, we participate in order to present the strongest possible opposition to the government’s plans. While working to stop this round of attacks we also point out that it was the Labour Party that was behind the first round of privatisations of assets in the mid-1980s.


We also explain that the right-wing nationalism of NZ First and the soft left nationalism of other elements in the campaign will only work to divide ordinary people. The best way to win is to employ a strategy that unites all sections of the working class – the class with the most latent power in society.

The problem that working class people in New Zealand have is that they are currently without a mass party that can bring them together and represent them in the parliament and in the various struggles that are taking place.

People’s attitude to the Labour opposition was highlighted in a recent TV3-Reid Research Poll where its leader, David Shearer, was polling a mere 8.5%! The crisis in Labour is rooted in the fact that most people see them as no different to National. This opens up huge opportunities for a party to the left of Labour to grow.

Given the deep seated opposition to asset sales it makes sense for trade unions, community groups and left parties like Mana to put forward a bold political alternative to privatisation. This should include fighting for the total public ownership of the major sectors of the economy under democratic workers’ and community control. This could be won by uniting all sections of the working class in New Zealand into a mass struggle.

Public rallies are a good first step but if they were combined with widespread industrial action the government would not only be forced to reverse its plans but it could be brought down quickly. On the basis of public ownership of big industry and the banks a democratic plan of production could be implemented to grow the economy while simultaneously creating jobs and building the homes and services that society needs.

This is the type of future we need to fight for in New Zealand, as opposed to allowing whichever establishment party is in power to make us pay for an economic crisis that we did not create.


  1. This is a very good article. Apart from the fact that insufficient credit has been given to Socialist Aotearoa for its part in establishing ANFS Auckland, it is fair and balanced.

    For those of us who have been involved in this fight since before the Hikoi, who attended the Hui you mentioned, and are still up to our eyeballs in it, the fight is far from over. Indeed, when you realise that the TPPA is cut from the same cloth, you understand we are in a much bigger fight than we at first believed.

    We have literally been organising and fighting street by street, almost house by house in broad coallition, with no budget at all, while the government has spent $26 million to date, at a rate of $1 million a month. Given the billions involved, and the millions spent, there is no chance that the government will accept the verdict of the pending referendum if it goes against them.

    Do we have the Union muscle to force the issue, as you say? Quite possibly. But can we trust that anything short of a General Strike will shock this government back to its senses? I doubt it.

    As passionate a supporter of strong union action as I am, I wonder if we are not dealing with a new form of corporatocracy that is in fact immune to even wide scale strike action.

    Having watched the recent port actions, and the arrogant, haughty privilege of the Port management, and comparing that to global trends, I sense that International Capital will see our General Strike and raise us a Financial Crisis. By that I mean they appear to have read our playbook, and it no longer gives them any great cause for alarm. And that should alarm us.

    I would never say we should stint on the street action or the organising. But we need some explanation for, and some counter to this odd insouciance these characters exhibit when more than 80% of the population is set against them.

    Put it this way, if they’ve been promised $50 million up front and a job for life in the IMF if they sell out their country, most politicians would walk over burning coals to do what was asked. To all appearances, it seems that’s how the last bailout passed, even as 100 THOUSAND outraged Greeks surrounded the parliament the night of the vote.

    These power companies are STRATEGIC assets… They are worth any price you may pay for them, because once you own them you own New Zealand, the whole country, end of story. Just as 50 cents worth of brass, passed through the nose of a bull commands the entire animal and all its attention, so buying these assets means the complete and utter loss of our sovereignty – game set and match.

    It is for this reason that I call both the Asset Sales agenda, and TPPA one and the same issue, and why I do not consider it anything short of TREASON on the part of those members of Parliament who support it.

    How is it not Treason to conspire to surrender our sovereignty and beggar us by selling off our prime assets, against all reason, against the advice of Treasury and in defiance of 80% of the voting population? If that is not Treason there is no such thing.

    For TREASON, there is no statute of limitations. We must show these politicians that there are some things that money cannot buy, and one of those things is security from the long arm of New Zealand justice, when things swing back around, which they must eventually do.

    I do not see National honouring the referendum even if we win. I see the leader of every major opposition party expressing outrage while secretly preparing to do business with our new corporate overlords.

    We must live with the consequences of what they do, but somehow they seem immune. Let’s introduce them to the concept of consequences, by setting in motion the wheels of justice, and eventually GAOLING a few traitors.

    So let’s reframe the debate right now, by making a public call for a BILL OF TREASON if asset sales or the TPPA go ahead.

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