Winston Peters asks Southlanders if they feel 'Cinderella-ised' over response to Tiwai Point smelter closure

Winston Peters has asked Southlanders if they feel "Cinderella-ised" over the Government's response to Rio Tinto's announced closure of the Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter. 

The New Zealand First leader delivered a fiery speech in Invercargill on Friday advocating saving the smelter from closure because it contributes around $406 million to the Southland economy. 

With approximately 2260 full-time equivalent jobs created directly or indirectly by the smelter, the closure could be devastating for Southland's labour market, and Peters believes the solution is to keep it operating.  

"Workers and their families matter - particularly over the years when they have put together the finest aluminium product in the world. And yet, here in this hall today you are wondering, 'What on earth have we done wrong?'" Peters said. 

He took aim at his own Government's refusal to bail out the aluminium smelter, telling Southlanders they have been "crucified upon a cross of ideology", and taking a swipe at Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. 

"Don't you feel put upon? Victimised? Marginalised? Cinderella-ised? Or am I really at the Mother Theresa congregation of Southland? Because you're all laughing,' Peters said. 

"I can't think of anything more sad, to see a family's hopes and dreams built on Tiwai down through the decades, building the finest aluminium product in the world, and now being told by a bunch of bureaucrats in Wellington that you've got to go somewhere else."

The facility at the Tiwai Peninsula, across the harbour from Bluff in Southland, is New Zealand's only aluminium smelter. It is 79.36 percent owned by Rio Tinto and 20.64 percent owned by Japan's Sumitomo Chemical Company.

Despite receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in direct and indirect Government subsidies over the years, including a $30 million bailout under former Prime Minister John Key, the Rio Tino announced plans to shut up shop. 

The Government has so far refused to give the smelter any more bailouts. 

Finance Minister Grant Robertson earlier this month described the Tiwai Point closure as having a "sense of inevitability", and he announced a "transition" period for jobs into other areas such as agriculture, aquaculture and manufacturing.

The Prime Minister planned to announce a roughly $100 million recovery package for Southland, but the idea was sunk by New Zealand First who would prefer to save the smelter from closure. 

Peters laughed it off in his speech. 

"Oh and here's the $100 million just in case we can find some jobs for you as you transition somewhere."

He added, "If we go down this pathway of abandoning Tiwai Point, in favour of a transition package as some politicians would advocate for, the results will be dwarfed by what happens here and the wider impact on employment across New Zealand."

It's not the first time Peters has taken a swipe at Ardern over the closure of the smelter. 

Peters wrote an article in the New Zealand Herald last week about why he thinks the smelter should be saved and bought-out, and Ardern distanced herself from his comments. 

"I saw the position of the leader of New Zealand First," she said at the time

In 2007 the smelter struck a deal with Meridian Energy for the continuous supply of power until 2030. Energy Minister Megan Woods said Rio Tinto's decision not to extend their "generous" power contract with Meridian will flow through to the rest of the market.

"Eventually it will free up around 13 percent of total power generated in New Zealand which will relieve some pressure to build new generation. The increased supply will also have a positive impact on prices." 

But Peters fears that will take too long - a concern shared by the Gore District Council.

"Electricity freed up by the closure of Tiwai Smelter will not be able to be transported to major demand points in the North for 5 to 7 years as major grid investments have not yet been made," an analysis paper by the council says. 

The smelter is set to shut in August 2021 - but the council is calling on the Government to facilitate a five-year wind-down period which they say would allow for a more suitable transition period. 

Ardern said she understands Rio Tinto is currently in talks with Meridian but she would not reveal anything more. 

"Those are commercial negotiations and so those talks are for them. But some of that will determine some of the timeframes we're working to for the ultimate transition here in Southland and the jobs that are obviously reliant on the smelter."