How can Southland cope without its engine and biggest employer, the Tiwai Point smelter?  Invercargill’s deputy mayor Toni Biddle and Dee St businesswoman Anne Marie Thomas on what happens now

Toni Biddle: “We’ve always known this could potentially happen. So, therefore, there has been a huge amount of work done in the background from business leaders and civic leaders in relation to ‘what if’. However the timing on this seems interesting to say the least, considering we have an election coming up. We still see, that as a window of opportunity here in Southland because we are that resilient. And, you know, when we’re backed into a corner, we tend to come out fighting.

I believe that there is still a window of opportunity to lobby our Government and there is no denying that that’s what we are going to do. There seems to be a huge amount of talk around the fact that, you know, that everyone else subsidises Tiwai but actually Tiwai’s high transmission costs have been subsidising the cost of the grid in Auckland and the north.

So there are two sides to every argument. We only want what’s fair, fair pricing and transmission. The other argument is that they would send the power into the grid and send it north but you can only send it so far before you have to consider the infrastructure. So there’d be a huge amount of money that would have to be spent to do that as well. So the story and the picture is a little bigger than what people are led to believe.

Harsh midwinter news in the south. Photo: Phill Prendeville

I wouldn’t underestimate the Government’s decision, from what I can gather. It appears that the decision has been made. Most importantly for us, however, is the effect that decision has on our community. I believe we still have an opportunity that the Government needs to consider how they can influence the [outcome]. By that, I mean the transmission, the cost, the pricing, and the transmission fees. But in saying that, our community has been working on ways to pivot so that we can diversify and make sure that the people here, and the people that work at Tiwai, we don’t lose them altogether,

2,260 jobs, to be exact, will be affected by this decision. That’s the estimate we have today. The Government’s focus now is on job resilience. It’s frustrating to see billions of dollars being spent all over the country to establish new industry and new jobs, when we have 2260 jobs, basically here that they’re saying they’re not prepared to retain.

Invercargill deputy mayor Toni Biddle. Photo: Supplied

I feel absolutely devastated for the people who work at Tiwai. My sister works at Tiwai, so personally I feel her pain, like many others in this community. This is a decision that, for me, you’ve got a Government pushing to save jobs and create jobs. You’ve got a Government who has pushed through regional economic development throughout our country in regional areas. And it is actually our single greatest employer down here is Tiwai, 2260 jobs, the ripple effect of that is absolutely devastating. 

Many people have said,’have they forgotten that we exist in Southland?’ We’ve had a lot of change here in Southland, in our community. After the SIT reform and, the New Zealand Institute of Technology changes, it seems to be, just one thing after another at the moment in the South.

And the hardest thing about that is we have such a united community which is doing huge investment in city centre blocks to rejuvenate our city. You know, there’s a lot of development going on down here and we’ve actually had government funding for that. So, on one hand we’ve been given a huge amount of money to invest in the rejuvenation of our city, yet the outcome of this decision means that we lose, potentially, the people that will be here to benefit from it.”

Anne-Marie Thomas, who has an advertising agency and retail shop on Invercargill’s main street, Dee St:

“If Tiwai Point closes, it’s Armageddon for Invercargill. This will be the biggest disaster that could happen to Southland, and we’ve had a few.

“We’re not just talking Tiwai Point, we’re talking all the other businesses – the tradies, the specialist engineering, the trucking companies. The whole of Invercargill is related to Tiwai Point.”

“If you put your Auckland pants on, it would be like wiping out the whole of the South Auckland economy in one hit. Imagine that. That’s the effect it would have on our economy. It would be a disaster for Southland.”

Invercargill businesswoman Anne Marie Thomas. Photo: Supplied

“The Government is giving money to everyone in New Zealand. Wouldn’t it be a good strategic move to keep an existing heavyweight and a mega taxpayer, at least until the world corrects itself?”

“In the old days if you lost your job, you could go to Australia or overseas. No one is going to be able to do that. Families won’t even have the opportunity to move because no one will want to buy their houses. We are talking about a whole city financially ruined.”

Melanie Reid is Newsroom's lead investigations editor.

Leave a comment