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The future of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter should be an election issue, put there by coincidental timing and a party that polls suggest may struggle to get back into Parliament.
It would be fair to assume Rio Tinto — a multinational with a history of extracting concessions from governments — thought as much when it announced plans to close it down in 14 months’ time. Closing the country’s biggest single electricity consumer would be of national significance. Losing so many well-paid jobs would be hard to accept.
It has been hard for the Labour Party’s coalition partner to accept, even if the response from other parties and vote-rich electorates has been muted. New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, the erstwhile kingmaker, has grasped the smelter’s cause.
As ministers arrived in Southland with vague promises to provide a just transition for the workers and the economy last month, Mr Peters said the Government must either buy the smelter or intervene and offer a more attractive price for the power it gets from Manapouri.
The latter was almost certainly designed to show Rio Tinto some in Wellington are willing to keep the smelter open. It also allowed New Zealand First to set itself apart from its coalition partner.
Weeks have lapsed since that visit and it is clear the Labour Party is unlikely to adopt its partner’s plans as an election-time pledge. Like the National Party before it, it seems unlikely to offer any further concessions to keep the smelter open, or to take the plunge and become a smelter owner.
If anything, Labour seems more likely to revive the $100million jobs package it wanted to take South before New Zealand First said it could not support a plan that does not yet stack up. Whether this will be enough for a region that ought to have expected a compelling plan, developed in the years since closure was threatened in 2013, seems unlikely.
However, the passage of time since Rio Tinto last month announced it planned to close shows ‘‘saving’’ the smelter may prove difficult. Mr Peters’ has been a lone voice and there remains plenty of public commentary in favour of cutting loose the smelter altogether.
This is, in part, a product of circumstance. The Covid-19 pandemic and the looming recession mean New Zealanders living away from the South have their own job and economic worries to focus on. It has always been hard to encourage voters in the north to lobby for the South; this is now more difficult.
At the same time, there have been fewer obvious voices from the South making a noise where it matters. The incumbent Invercargill MP, who is retiring at the election, has not mounted an obvious out-of-region crusade. Her replacement candidate lacks the vehicle to do the same.
Wider Southland is also affected, and it, too, was caught in something of a political interregnum. Its disgraced National Party MP is on leave pending retirement, and a replacement candidate has only just been selected. The National Party has yet to step in to keep the issue on the national agenda.
The prospect of losing such a sizeable industry and such a sizeable employer ought to be manna from heaven for a party languishing a distant second in the pre-election political polls. That National has not made as much noise as possible is disappointing, even considering its previous incarnation told Rio Tinto its 2013, $35million payment would be the last.
As it stands, the most direct policy position has been articulated by Mr Peters, and the most recent political poll suggests his party might struggle to get the votes it needs to return enough MPs to provide a viable potential coalition partner. This will concern retention proponents.
The election campaign has started and it is time for the smelter’s future to be turned into pledges. Without political prominence outside the region — we acknowledge the work of the region’s mayors — it will continue to take a poor second place to northern excitement that the price of power might come down in electorates where the result will have a real impact on the election.