Hard News by Russell Brown


A storm in any port

This Ports of Auckland thing? It's been going on longer than you might think.

We're covering the story on Media7 this week, with Metro magazine editor Simon Wilson (who wrote a forthright and influential editorial on the topic for the current issue), former Ports of Auckland communications manager Karren Beanland and Stephen Blumenfield, director of the Industrial Relations Centre at Victoria University.

Among the many things we'll be discussing is this interesting feature that Nick Smith wrote nearly a year ago for the Herald's Business section, on feuding and politics at Ports of Auckland, and what changes the government's Council Countrolled Organisation structure might bring.

It is clear that the port company's problems did not begin with its current confrontation with the Maritme Union:

It is far from clear that the infighting that has crippled governance of one of Auckland's critical pieces of infrastructure is over. Some people spoke to the Herald on the record, with off the record additions. Others spoke purely off the record.

In their totality, their remarks suggest a continuing Left-Right divide, exacerbated by personal enmity. Belittling remarks about present and former key port figures are ubiquitous.

Ironically, the two men Smith casts as representing opposing factions -- Auckland councillor Mike Lee and Simon Allen, the government-appointed chair of the port CCO -- were both enthusastic about prospects under new CEO Tony Gibson. And Lee says something he has doubtless reflected on since:

Liz Coutts, another director, has significant experience in industrial relations, he says, which will assist in the ports' dealings with the Maritime Union of New Zealand.

In October, Gibson himself made a comment in a guest opinion piece for the Herald that takes on a greater significance now.

We welcome views and debate. But it's vital that the debate is based on facts, and not on cheap sound-bites, misinformation and bogus polls full of leading questions.

Supporters of the Maritime Union are, of course of the view that Gibson's lament neatly characterises the way his own company has sold its attempt to casualise the port's workforce. And, indeed, until about December, the issue was largely presented to the public as the story of a chief executive and his board struggling with an intransigent union.

In December, Gibson wrote another Herald column, in which he acknowledged the possibility of a merger with Port of Tauranga:

This will require a single-minded focus on resolving, once and for all, the labour issues that have dogged the port for decades. As well as regular disruptions from industrial action, a wide range of inflexible work practices are a drag on efficiency.

Labour utilisation here is about 65 per cent compared to more than 80 per cent at Port of Tauranga, meaning that for every 40 hours a stevedore is paid, they can work as little as 26 (and let's remember that average remuneration for a fulltime stevedore is $91,000).

The $91,000 figure was something of a PR masterstroke. It had zing. Everyone started using it. And it was deeply misleading. 

POAL was tooled up for the fight in a way that has taken the Maritime Union -- a strong but traditional union -- some time to get to grips with. As one of The Standard's bloggers notes:

A leaked report showed that the Port’s management have set aside $9 million to have this dispute, and another $9 million will be needed for redundancies.  They have hired a PR company, lawyers and 3 negotiating contractors to spend our dime, attacking the workers who only last September they were celebrating for breaking productivity records.

But the port isn't the only faction with a PR company, and the industrial dispute is only a part of the picture; one that looks smaller the longer you look at what's going on.

Heart of the City chief and mayoral aspirant Alex Swney has had Pead PR running an effective campaign against POAL's proposal for a massive outward expansion of the port. Matthew Hooton, who has his own PR company, also argued strongly against the port expansion in his NBR column -- to the extent that rumours have circulated that he is working for NorthPort (we put that to him and he flatly denied it). Hooton and NBR subsequently received a legal letter from a QC acting for Waterfront Auckland -- which was upset by the suggestion that it colluded with or was allied with its fellow council entity, POAL, such are the times we live in -- and ran a facetious "apology" in response.

Meanwhile, Swney is also involved with a new group that has drafted a proposed charter for the port and includes CTU president Helen Kelly -- and this guy, quoted in the original release:

“The need to increase earnings is being used to justify the current plans to reduce working conditions on the Port including contracting out labour. We support decent work conditions and oppose casualisation in the manner being proposed by the Port. Not only is it unnecessary but it could cause major disruption to its customers and contribute to increasing inequality in the City. This is another example of how focus on earnings is inappropriate for a key strategic service such as the Port.” Michael Lorimer said.

Lorimer is director of Grant Samuel and Associates; a merchant bank. He also turns up in this story, where it's noted that Grant Samuel prepared the independent report on the old Auckland Regional Council's takeover offer for the company in 2005. He regards the Auckland Council's demand now for a 12% return on assets from POAL as unrealistic.

That story also quotes Auckland Council's government-appointed CEO Doug McKay:

While McKay expressed disappointment that negotiations between the port company and unions had broken down, he did not appear surprised.

"I keep reminding Len [Brown] that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette," he said.

The problem is that the report McKay presented to Len Brown and his council to justify its bout of omlette-making has finally been obtained by the Sunday Star Times (the council tried to block its release). And reporter Greg Ninness says it has "been revealed as little more than a background report on a Singaporean company and does not even mention Ports of Auckland." For some reason, the story isn't online, but there's a blog post about it here.

So: shit's flying everywhere (I've been told at least one blogger is actually taking money for his advocacy -- he also flatly denied it when we contacted him) and very odd bedfellows abound. Auckland mayor Len Brown has been hopeless in the media, earning himself warm praise from David Farrar.

But POAL's decision to drop the bomb and sack 300 workers it hopes will now line up for new contract jobs has turned public perceptions in a direction that's not helpful to POAL. The union group Save Our Port appears to have momentum, and the brutal redundancy decision has offered a way in for the Labour Party, which despite the hesitancy of its leadership, still has a highly effective grassroots team in Auckland.

I strongly suspect there are more shoes to drop and more layers to peel back here. I think we'll have an interesting show for you.

If you'd like to join us for the recording on Wednesday, we'll need you there a little earlier than usual -- some time between 5.pm and 5.30pm. Come to the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ. And, as ever, try and drop me an email to say you're coming.

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