THE GREAT MERIDIAN EXPERIMENT: IS MERIDIAN 'GUIDELINE AWARE'?




Our mystery Meridian Energy consumer took himself to the point of disconnection to see if there was any change in this new more 'socially aware' guideline era. (see July 26 entry).

Did our mystery Meridian customer receive any sympathetic calls from Meridian, perhaps offering a plan to pay the bill in instalments? No. Nor did Meridian indicate it wanted to consult with 'social agencies' in an attempt to prevent disconnection.

In fact - nothing was heard from Meridian.

So our mystery consumer rang them.

The response? According to the Meridian's female representative, our consumer would receive a phone call before he was cut off. How nice.

When our secret consumer asked why Meridian was not operating to the new guidelines, the woman didn't appear to know what he was talking about.

Meridian, it seems, is still disconnecting people like it has always done - despite assurances from its government owner that things would be different.

PHIL GOFF FARTS A LOT!


New Zealand or more specifically, New Zealand parliamentary politicians made Jon Stewart's The Daily Show (C4, Tues-Fri 10pm) this week.

The Thursday night edition of the US satirical show (broadcast in New Zealand on Friday night) lampooned the pomposity of 'our representatives' who have unilaterally decided they don't want to be shown in a 'bad light' on television during parliamentary sessions - even if they are making fools of themselves.

The Daily Show rightly decided that such nonsense couldn't go unreported and proceeded to satirise our egotistical M.P.'s. PM Clark, Deputy PM Cullen and Foreign Minister Goff all got the treatment.

Phil Goff, not known for being a stand-up comedian, raised a few laughs when one of his dreary parliamentary speeches came complete with big farting noises.

Of course, all the main television channels have said they will ignore the ruling of the speaker, Margaret Wilson, and continue to broadcast what they like when they like.

The Daily Show is an Emmy-award American satirical show that is broadcast on Comedy Central each weeknight. It pulls in audience figures in the region of 1.5 milion, a high figure for a show on cable televison. It is also broadcast in a number of other countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and New Zealand.

MERIDIAN CONTINUES TO DISCONNECT CONSUMERS, INCREASES PRICES, IGNORES GOVERNMENT GUIDELINES


Despite assurances from the Government that electricity companies would adhere to a new set of guidelines before disconnecting consumers, Meridian continues to disconnect consumers as it has always done.

It's notice of disconnection shows no evidence of a new 'consultative' era - in fact, its the same terse notice of disconnection that they have always sent out.

The consumer has ten days to pay the bill or gets disconnected. And Meridian add another five dollars to the bill - apparently this is a 'service fee'.

There's the usual brief statement that if people are having problems paying the bill they can contact the 'Customer Service Team'.

Otherwise, there's no evidence at all that Meridian have taken on board the new guidelines.

According to the guidelines, power consumers are supposed to advise consumers of assistance available from government and community agencies. They are supposed to take steps to identify vulnerable consumers and consult with the Ministry of Social Development before disconnecting a consumer - at no time during this process can Meridian disconnect a consumer.

There is no evidence that Meridian are doing this.

To add insult to injury Meridian, who made a $104.5 milion profit for the year ended 31 December 2006, has just announced yet another price increase. An average bill will increase by $6 a month as from 1 September.

Any socially responsible Government would rein in Meridian - unfortuately, we don't have such a government.

We'll be following the journey of this specific disconnection notice and will report on the results.

THE GREAT ELECTRICITY SWINDLE


While New Zealanders are faced with escalating power prices, Comalco gets its power at less than a third of the price the rest of us have to pay. James Ayer takes a look at Comalco and the sweet power deal it enjoys. This article has been slightly edited.

For those of you who have had to pay any electricity bills over the past few years, the fact that the power has jumped by around 50 percent has been a bitter pill to swallow. And unfortunately for all of us we have had to swallow it, as electricity is one of life's necessities.

Despite the claims of the Government and their free market puppetmasters, there is no competition in the electricity sector, generators are essentially a cartel, offering very small price differentials between them. The fact that there is no surplus capacity means prices will never fall, and in fact the need to build extra power stations is just one of several spurious reasons given for continually rising prices to consumers. Prices go up, consumers have no choice, homes are disconnected, power company profits soar and in at least one instance, an oxygen machine stops working with tragic consequences.

However with no disrespect to the Muliaga family a greater electricity tragedy is being played out right now and the country has been suffering from it for the past 30 years. I am of course talking about the aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point, owned and operated by the multinational Comalco, and its cushy deal with the Government which has secured it super-cheap power - and its a deal that remains top secret.

Comalco's aluminum smelter has a constant demand for 600 megawatts of electricity or around 15 percent of the country's total electricity generation. New Zealand's largest energy generator, Meridian (ironically owned by the taxpayer) supplies this power from its Manopouri hydro station. Comalco is guaranteed supply, even if the rest of the country is acing power cuts. In other words, the profit requirements of a foreign owned company take precedence over whether you and I keep our lights on and our families warm.

You may well be a Meridian customer. What do you pay for power from them? Probably at least 16 cents per kilowatt-hour. While Comalco buys 10 percent of its power at wholesale spot market prices, an average around 8 cents per kilowatt hour, 90 percent of its power purchases are a secretly fixed price, reported to be less than five cents per kilowatt hour (Christchurch Press, 16 June, 2005).

So Comalco pays less than a third of the price the rest of us pay!

So in broad numbers, what is the effect of this massive price differential?

Comalco consumes the power requirements of approximately 600,000 homes. According to Meridian, the average home uses 12,000 kilowatts or spends $2000 a year on power. The total power bill for 600,000 homes is therefore around $1.2 billion. Comalco, in stark contrast, pays less than $400 million for the same amount of power. Therefore either or the taxpayer via Meridian is losing around $800 million annually by selling cheap power to Comalco, or alternatively all other New Zealand power users are subsidising Comalco annually by roughly the same amount. Whatever way you look at it, we are all being ripped off, and paying higher electricity prices thanks to this humungous corporate welfare swindle.

Comalco will say that it should get a cheaper power price than the rest of us because it's a very large user. If there was surplus capacity then perhaps they should, but how can a discount of over 666 percent be justifies? Electricity is a constrained resource in this country, therefore the price Comalco pays should be consistent with all other users. Indeed, some would argue Comalco should pay a higher price than the rest of us, given that they it is foreign-owned, and their operation places considerable strains and distortions on the electricity sector.

Comalco will also say that it generates over a billion dollars in exports - and deserves the power subsidy. However the main raw materials used in the production of aluminium, alumina or bauxite, coke and pitch are imported, costing around half of the export value of aluminium produced.

Comalco and public figures like Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt will talk about 1000 or so jobs generated in Southland by the smelter. However given the massive power subsidy given to Comalco, these jobs cost far more than any income generated. You could say that each job is costing the country $800,000 annually - this is economic lunacy.

Comalco has also taken a liking to the name of where their smelter is based, Bluff, so much that they regularly use it when faced with power negotiations, carbon taxes or even criticism in the media.

A couple of years ago Comalco threatened to leave when the idea of a carbon tax was being floated. Some of us suggested they should of been encouraged to leave, highlighting the positive outcomes from freeing up 15 percent of the country's power to be used by other consumers - or, alternatively, seeing a big 15 percent decrease in power prices for all New Zealnders.

Last year Comalco threatened to build a coal-fired power station should their negotiations with Meridian on the price they pay for power post 2010, not be 'affordable' - in other words, cheap.

So while you and I are struggling to keep warm and pay our power bills this winter, just remember you are helping a transnational corporation drain our lakes so they can make big profits to send to their overseas shareholders, quicker than you can say 'aluminuim ingot'.

James Ayer presents a weekly expose of business corporations in New Zealand on Plains FM (96.5FM) in Christchurch. Corporate Nemesis can be heard each Tuesday at 11 am.

MERIDIAN ENERGY: 'A ROGUE CORPORATE'


Meridian Energy don't seem to be heeding the call to be more 'socially responsible' as the Government says all power companies must be.

Take the case of Bruce.

Bruce is on a low income and more often than not, he cannot pay the electricity bill on time - in fact, he often can't find all the cash for the skyrocketing power bill until he receives the letter threatening to cut him off.

Says Bruce: 'If you don't pay the first bill, then you receive a second letter threatening further action. Then about ten days after that you receive the third letter which says they will be disconnecting you unless the bill is paid within five working days. What these fat cats at Meridian don't seem to understand is that people like me do pay the bills in the end, it just takes us longer because we are on low incomes. But Meridian have no sympathy with this - they just hit you with the threatening letters regardless.'

What also annoys Bruce is that Meridian slap a five dollar penalty charge on the bill. 'That charge comes with the second letter. So what they are doing is adding more financial stress and burden on to people and families on low incomes. If I haven't got the money to pay, I haven't got to money -it's as simple as that. Adding a further five dollar penalty charge on to the bill doesn't solve anything.'

But, for people like Bruce, it gets worse.

Bruce recently moved into a smaller flat.

He was up to date with his power account. However when he came to get his power switched on at his new place he was informed he would have to pay Meridian a $150 bond.

'According to Meridian I am a financial risk to them,' says Bruce. 'When I pointed out that I had paid all my accounts the call centre woman told me they were charging me a bond because of what she described as my 'erratic payment record.' So basically because I don't pay the power bill when Meridian would like me to they penalised me a further $150. Remember we are talking about a power company that makes vast profits and whose CEO, Keith Turner, is on a salary close to $400,000 a year.'

Not surprisingly Bruce doesn't have a high opinion of Meridian. 'They are a rogue corporate who think they can do what they like, when they like. Any semblance of a public service ethos went out the window when they divided up the ECNZ. And what is this government doing about it. Sweet fuck all.'

Meridian Energy made an after-tax profit of $104.5 million for the half year ending 31 December 2006.

IT'S BUSINESS AS USUAL AT MERCURY ENERGY: PEOPLE GET THEIR POWER CUT OFF


Despite disconnecting the power of the Muliaga family and killing wife and mother Folole Muliaga, Mercury Energy recommenced the whole sordid basis of disconnecting people's power again today.

Despite Mrs's Muliaga's death, nothing substantial has changed.

The Labour Government has refused to intervene in any meaningful way, instead introducing some 'guidelines' that power companies will have to adhere to before cutting people's power off.

But, as of today, people are still being disconnected.

Meanwhile at Mercury Energy no-one has been held accountable for Ms Muliaga's death. In particular CEO Doug Heffernan, a man who played an influential role in splitting ECNZ into threee competing state enterprises, remains in the job.

He was part of the transition team that oversaw the restructuring of the electricity industry.

In a 7 April 1998 press release, Treasurer Winston Peters, Minister of Finance Bill Birch, Minister of Energy Max Bradford and Minister for State Owned Enterprises Tony Ryall commented;

"The new companies will make the wholesale electricity market in New Zealand highly competitive, and should lead to lower prices,"

Brendan Sheehan, a spokesperson for the Muliaga family, has been less than impressed with Heffernan's performance stating on several occasion's that Heffernan plays fast and loose with the facts

Heffernan, the chief executive of Might River Power, the state-owned enterprise which owns Mercury Energy, said at the time that 'they deeply regretted the death of Mrs Muliaga but they had done nothing wrong.'

Hefferman is a believer in electricity liberalisation. He thinks that electricity is a business and should be left to the private sector.

The argument from Heffernan and others of his ilk, was that liberalising electricity would foster competition and this in turn would improve efficiency and service, innovation and lower prices.

It has proven to be an empty promise - electricity prices for New Zealand consumers have skyrocketed.

Instead, liberalisation has seen the goal of a reliable, affordable, universal electricity service replaced by the goals of efficiency, competition and "consumer choice". Even where electricity companies have remained government-owned, they have been turned into commercial organisations oriented towards maximising returns rather than providing an essential service in the public interest.

In an often intemperate telephone conversation with this writer, Meridian Energy spokesperson Alan Seay flatly reflected the argument that supplying electricity was a public or social service. According to Seay, electricity is a business - and that's it. When I continued to challenge him on this, he hung up on me. Interestingly, Seay has never made such outlandish statements in the public arena.

Unfortunately we have a government that steadfastly refuses to intervene and has surrendered the country's electricity supply to free market forces and neo-liberal ideologues like Heffernan and Seay.

But electricity supply is not something that can be properly managed by market forces. It is a basic necessity for people's welfare and it needs to be brought under the control of a government that puts people's interests ahead of the narrow commercial interests represented by people like Doug Heffernan.

Simply sending people off to social agencies or offering 'installment' plans to pay the ever-increasing power bills is no solution at all.

THE RICH GET RICHER


One of the more irritating things about New Zealand politics is that the establishment can get away with making fictitious statements that are simply accepted by a docile corporate media.

So this week I have heard the Minster of Finance, Michael Cullen 'informing' us that, thanks to Labour's economic policies, we are living in a more egalitarian and just society.

Did anyone in the media bother to examine Cullen's claim? No - and it quickly becomes another one of the political myths, just like the supposedly 'low' unemployment figures.

And it doesn't take too much research work to dig up the real figures. I found them by a quick trawl through cyberspace.

According to a Statistics New Zealand survey , the distribution of wealth become more unequal in 2003-4 than the previous survey in 2001, where the richest ten percent owned 48 percent of the country's total wealth. In 2003-04 they owned 52 percent of the total wealth.

And the same survey showed that the richest half of the country owned 93 of the total wealth in 2001. Three years later they owned 95 percent of the total wealth.

This hardly sounds like a more just and egalitarian society to me...

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING IDLE



It's good to do nothing, says Tom Hodgkinson, editor of the London-based The Idler magazine.


Tom Hodgkinson isn't a winner. He isn't 'working towards his goals'. He doesn't have 'power lunches'. And he doesn't go to the gym. Hodgkinson is an idler; he 's lazy and proud of it.

As the editor of the UK magazine The Idler, he has spent his time celebrating laziness and attacking 'the work culture of the western world which has enslaved, demoralised and depressed so many of us.'

Writes Hodgkinson in his book How To Be Idle: 'being idle is about being free, and not just being free to choose between McDonald's and Burger King or Volvo and Saab. It is about being free to live the lives we want to be lead, free from bosses, wages, commuting, consuming and debt. Being idle is about fun, pleasure and joy.'

After leaving university, Hodgkinson spent the next three years trying to make a living as a freelance journalist, writing for such publications as The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian.

'For three years I tried to make a living as a journalist,' he says. 'But I always had this problem- well, I was lazy and I lacked motivation. And I was kind of beating myself up about this and then I read these essays by Samuel Johnson called 'The Idleree', done in the 1750s. He was describing the character of an idler and what he was describing was not someone who was just lazy but someone who worked in a different kind of way. So someone who found it difficult to get to work on time and do the eight hours might be able to do something very quickly. He was describing someone who worked by building up momentum. So the idea is you lie in bed thinking and then you do your work very quickly and then you get off to the pub. This is an attractive way of working for me. so idleness can be something positive.'

It was Samuel Johnson's essay that were the inspiration for The Idler magazine. 'I thought there might be room for a magazine that catered for these ideas. Also at this time Douglas Coupland had done Generation X and discovered this slacker thing in the United States.'

Hodgkinson and a fellow idler raised enough cash from friends to publish the first issue of The Idler in 1993. A thousand copies were printed of a 33-page magazine.

Hodgkinson was delighted by the response. 'Right from the beginning we were getting letters from people saying, 'This is amazing, I thought I was the only person in the world with these ideas.'

Some thirteen yeas later The Idler is still around and Hodgkinson is still editing it. He regards it as a 'canon of idle writing, from the philosophy, fiction, poetry and history of the last three thousand years, to give us idlers the mental ammunition to fight against work.'

'The magazine still doesn't make any money,' says Hodgkinson. 'But it's taken us into some fantastic areas and we've met some fantastic people.'

There is an obvious question here. Isn't editing a magazine kind of like, well, working?'

Hodgkinson: 'My definition of work is doing something you don't want to do. The ideal is doing work you want to do when you want to do it. I'm victimised by capitalism and all those other things - anxiety, fear, desire. I think everyone is. I go into the office and then I go home. It's not like going down a mine - it's pleasantly okay. My ideal is that The Idler makes money.'

In his funny and insightful book How To Be Idle, published in 1995, Hodgkinson devotes a chapter to the thorny question of work. At times, he sounds like a socialist. He points out that the job was really a product of the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of capitalism. Before the advent of capitalism, he argues, work was 'a much more haphazard and less structured affair' and that the idea of being tied to one specific employer, was unknown.' (Although, to this writer at least, Hodgkinson tends to view pre-capitalist society through rose-tinted glasses.)

Hodgkinson says that work culture today is monotonous and regimented - the sort of miserable set-up brilliantly satirised in the UK sitcom The Office.

So why do we do it? To pay the bills of course.

But Hodgkinson says that we are told that a job is an answer to all 'woes, individuals and social' and that our lives will be better with more and more possessions.

He writes: 'the purchase of a product requires money. Money requires hard work. Or debt. We go into debt to chase our desires and then keep working to pay the debt. It's the modern form of indentured labour.'

But Hodgkinson is not a socialist. In fact he is as critical of socialism as he is of capitalism. In How To Be Idle he writes 'Capitalism has promoted the job as a religion; but so too, tragically, has socialism. The left has been brainwashed with the socialist dream of 'full employment'. But wouldn't full unemployment be better? A world where everyone is free to create their own life, their own work, their own money.'

He refers to Oscar Wilde's famous essay 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism'. Wilde points out the inherent illogic in the idea of full employment. Writes Wilde: 'It is regretted that a portion of our community should be practically in slavery, but to propose to solve the problem by enslaving the entire community is childish.'

Hodgkinson adds that the people who keep promoting the value of work are usually people who are comfortably wealthy. And there is some truth in this. It's always struck this writer as rank hypocrisy that a businessman or politician on a big, fat salary automatically assumes that we proles should be grateful for low wage, dead-end jobs.Apparently, there also good for our 'self-esteem' and allow us to 'socially-interact'.

This is nonsense and Hodgkinson knows it. In How To Be Idle he writes: 'There is a persistent myth of the lottery winner, who, despite never having to work again, keeps their minimum-wage factory job. I have believed this. No, people enjoy the social interaction despite the unpromising conditions in which the social interaction takes place: the laws against smoking and drinking, the patronising 'mission statements' on the walls. Does anyone really believe suppose that if we didn't have jobs, all social interaction would cease?'

So what is Tom Hodgkinson's own personal philosophy? It's a kind of free-wheeling anarchism. An anarchism that says that staying in bed all morning and staying up all night is a good thing. In How To Be Idle he celebrates, among other things, smoking, drinking, leisurely strolls to nowhere in particular, good books, and that very English custom of High Tea ('Tea should be a time for gentle chat and reflection, a cigarette, a little mental workout. It should last for least half an hour.').

'To be an idler is to be an anarchist,' says Hodgkinson. 'You don't like being told what to do. You hate the presumption that someone else can tell you how to think. An idler is trying to create his or own existence where you don't have to work and where you can lunch all day if you want to. In contrast, governments are all about guilt, anxiety, fear. The combination of a moralistic government and a capitalist system combines to bring about an awful amount of guilt and anxiety.'

Hodgkinson has a dream but it's not the dream so typical of this consumerist culture we live in. He's irritated how the word 'dream' has been appropriated and misused by media, marketing and business propaganda.

'During the dot.com boom it always struck me as absurd how the new young companies such as boo.com spoke of themselves in almost visionary terms. We have a dream, they said. Our staff share the dream. They are all working hard to make the dream come true. But what was this dream exactly? A dream of selling large quantities of sensible sportswear to the youth of Europe? That's not a dream, that's merely a vision of large profits.'

Hodgkinson defines real dreams as 'seeing what others miss'. He writes: 'They're not about money, they are about you, and they are about quality of life and imagination...I have a dream. It is called love, anarchy, freedom. It is called being idle.'

Tom Hodgkinson is the author of How To Be Idle and How To Be Free.

CHOO, CHOO, ALL ABOARD THE MEDIA GRAVY TRAIN!


TVNZ apparently doesn't have the money to fund a decent current affairs programme, but it seems to be able to have plenty of cash to send it's staff to sunny Sevilla to allegedly report on the America's Cup.

The latest TVNZ staffer to turn up for a wee bit of a break is presenter Wendy Petrie.

On Sunday night we were treated to Ms Petrie to interviewing two other TVNZ journalists down on the Sevilla waterfront. Why is she there? Why couldn't the interview be done via the studio? Well, Sevilla's weather is far more attractive than Auckland's right now and Ms Petrie gets the opportunity to wear her summer clothes.

One of the TVNZ staffers she 'interviewed' was TVNZ's European correspondent, Melissa Stokes. Apparently being at the America's Cup is far more urgent than reporting on such trivial matters as terrorist bombings in Britain.

Well, Ms Petrie is getting into the swing of the things, even trying out her Spanish greetings on us poor sods who paid for her to swan off to Spain.

The rumour is that she'll be joining the nonsensical John McBeth in another big round of cheerleading. Hopefully Alinghi will win 5-2 and these clowns will have to return home and possibly do some work...

Meanwhile TV3 has three people over in Sevilla, including news presenter Hilary Barry, who seems to be enjoying her holiday.

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