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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Oil company rip-off

The four major oil companies who jointly own New Zealand’s only oil refinery at Marsden Point use their ‘monopolistic’ position to screw the minority shareholders of the refinery out of half the profits they would otherwise be due.

BP, Mobil, Shell and Caltex own nearly 75% of the shares of the NZ Refining Company. They siphon off millions of dollars from the company in a “discount” arrangement which means last year they paid $286 million in processing fees instead of the "gross fee" of $430 million they should have been liable for: a discount of $144 million or 33%.

Up to August this year they have jointly paid only $US149 million instead of the “gross” amount of $US311.8 million they should have coughed up: that is an even greater discount of 48%.

The gross fee is calculated as the amount it would cost to refine the oil into petrol and diesel in Singapore and ship it to New Zealand from there. The costs of refining in New Zealand would undoubtedly be higher than those in Singapore, with its economies of scale, so even the so-called gross fee would be a cheap rate.

Those that lose out from the oil companies' sweetheart deal for themselves are the minority owners of the refinery shares. The 3,000 small shareholders have found a voice in retired banker Dom Kloosterman who calculated the figures above to quantify the “great injustice” done to them by this siphoning off of profits by the oil companies.

Kloosterman calculated that last year’s pre-tax profits should have been $293 million instead of the $149 million that was actually recorded. The $144 million difference was pocketed by the oil companies.

The processing discount arrangement has been in place since 1995. The oil companies have the refinery literally over a barrel because there are no other customers. Annual reviews to the arrangement have brought no real change.

The anti-competitive, oligarchal behaviour of the oil companies is legendary as witnessed by us all with the convenient price setting mechanisms in operation at the petrol pump. New Zealand once had an independent oil company owned by Todd Brothers which, from the 1930s, imported petrol from Russia. This was marketed under the Europa brand until the 1970s when BP bought the company and shut it down.

Monday, December 15, 2008

SFWU in South Auckland - Election 08

The election turnout in Mangere was down 3614 from the 2005 figure (which was 3945 up from 2002). Similar results occurred in Manurewa and Manukau East, with the turnout dropping back to the 2002 levels. It was the turnout drop that cost Labour votes. The National vote hardly increased at all in Mangere (3984 in 2005 to 4120 in 2008 - up a mere 226).

In Manurewa the National vote was also static while the drop in turnout of 4669 was reflected in the drop in the Labour party vote (down 4581). Philip Field's Pacific Party took 909 party votes in Manurewa which otherwise would probably gone to Labour (or maybe other 'Christian' Parties).

In Manukau East, boundary changes brought the strong Labour area of Otahuhu into the electorate which ameliorated the Labour drop. Turnout was down 5707 but the Labour vote was only down 1963 votes. The boundary change was also reflected in the drop in National's vote from 10219 to 6579 (down 3640). Most of this difference went to Labour. The Pacific Party scored 1219 party votes.

It is not really worth looking at comparisons of the Maungakiekie vote because of its change in boundary. The vote was up 3822 in 2005 and up again 4591 in 2008, reflecting the greater National territory now included. Carol Beaumont did well to limit National to a 1030-vote win on the party vote. She had a lot of help from the unions.

The biggest drop in the number of party votes for Labour in any electorate was in Mangere. While maintaining the top percentage for Labour of 61%, the number of party votes was down 5,454. This was because the turnout was down by 3614, and on top of that the Pacific Party took 2683 party-votes. Mangere was Field's HQ and his party had a strong presence in the electorate (aided by large amounts of campaign regalia and many hoardings and signs that would have cost a fortune).

If it had not been for the intervention of the SFWU in the Mangere campaign the result could have been much worse. The local Labour Party was having difficulty making an impact in the electorate. The SFWU supported and initiated street actions and cavalcades. It also helped with targeted-mail delivery and leafleting, as did other unions.

The SFWU gave the campaign a visibility to match that of the flags and flea-market presence of Field's supporters. SFWU red flags, as well as campaign signs and red t-shirts, alongside Labour's and Sio's, became the face of Labour in Mangere.

There is a need strengthen the Labour Party in the South Auckland seats. There is an urgent need to organise an effective network of union member volunteers in these seats.

It is apparent from the extensive election phone-survey and work-site visits conducted by the SFWU during its election campaign, that, while its members are by and large instinctively pro-Labour, their level of political consciousness is generally not well developed.

Unions should not “talk politics” with their members only at Election time. The members deserve more respect. Education and participation in the political process should be on-going.

Election result - lesson for Labour

The problem was two-fold: 5-6% of the middle-ground voters swung back to National, and the Labour message (and record) did not inspire a greater turnout from the working class.

Unsatisfactory Labour Party organisation in many of the working class seats was at least partly responsible for the latter factor.

The 74.7% turnout of all eligible voters in 2008 was down from 76.5% in 2005. This 1.8% drop in turnout represented 56,500 less votes. (The equivalent figures for turnout of enrolled voters were 78.4% in 2008 compared with 80.3% in 2005 - a drop of 1.9%.)

In 2005 it was the extra turnout in the safe Labour seats (like those in South Auckland) that was the difference between winning and losing for Labour. In November's election the slump back to 2002 levels of turnout, combined with the swing to National, meant the end of nine-years of Labour-led government.

Jack Vowles, New Zealand’s pre-eminent election expert, concluded in a 2002 article that the decline in voter turnout evident since the heyday of the 1938-45 period (when over 90% of all eligible voters would get to the polling booths), and the brief revival in 1984 (over 85% turnout), is a result of “weaker party identifications and reduced party campaign contact”.

Political parties, and particularly the Labour Party, have lost their organic connection with the people who make up the electorate that votes them in or out. They no longer have as much direct personal contact with the voters as used to be the case.

The statistical and survey data presented by Vowles revealed that better “organisational mobilisation” by political parties results in higher voter turnout. The “recovery of party organisations and the revival of individual loyalties to political parties” is the key.

I was working on the election campaign as the Political Co-ordinator for the Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU) during the months leading up to the election. Our campaign showed that over 80% of SFWU members supported Labour. The SFWU has maintained a sense of loyalty to the Labour Party among its members that is not mirrored elsewhere in society, possibly not even in other Labour-affiliated unions.

The Labour Party needs to revive itself as a grass-roots mass working class party if it wants to increase its voter turnout in its heartland seats. The Party Branch and other organisational structures have to become the means of reaching tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, who need to be brought up to a level of party loyalty and identification that matches that already attained in the SFWU. Unions like the SFWU can be the crucial catalyst that enables this to begin to happen.