What Amazon wanted from Jacinda Ardern to help with its New Zealand plans

By Phil Pennington of RNZ

Mega-company Amazon asked Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for help over billion-dollar data centres it is building here, and to have input on policy.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) asked Jacinda Ardern to appoint an "empowered" minister or senior officials to collaborate on getting an Overseas Investment Office consent without delays and to discuss bringing in skilled IT workers from abroad, among other things, an Official Information Act (OIA) response shows.

AWS also said: "We would very much like to discuss opportunities we see for fine-tuning New Zealand's policy settings that can support public sector cloud technology enablement", including how Amazon could meet the requirements to host highly classified data.

The 39-page OIA contains correspondence between Ardern, her office, and several of the dozen data centre companies that previously released documents show have been asking for government support - and asking ministers to cut the red tape on their various data centre construction projects in Auckland and the South Island.

Read the complete OIA here (39 pages)

The two largest global players, AWS and Microsoft, are to the forefront of the correspondence.

But the letters and e-mails also include one from a small local cloud computing company, Catalyst, asking in June 2022 if Ardern could visit ("We don't own superyachts, private jets, or spacecraft," it emailed her, trying to set itself apart). She did not visit, Catalyst told RNZ.

The longest letter runs to seven pages, in September 2021, where AWS promotes its $7.5 billion direct investment to Ardern:

"With the right mix of technological capabilities, good policy and regulatory settings, and a skilled workforce, we see the potential for New Zealand to be a leader on the global stage" through advanced cloud technology based here at hyper scale for the first time, Amazon said.

In reply in several letters in 2021 and 2022, Ardern expressed enthusiasm for AWS's and Microsoft's data centre plans, without giving specific undertakings.

"Working together, and with the right policies in place, we can clearly make a real difference," she told the AWS chief executive in one letter, in September this year.

What Amazon wanted

Amazon in September 2021 told the prime minister it hoped the government "could identity a relevant Minister who can work with us to identify collaboration opportunities and agree mutual commitments that can help deliver the full potential of this investment".

Under the title "Collaboration with the New Zealand Government", it raised five issues it wanted input on or help with.

After listing these, the AWS executive, whose name and position are blanked out, told Ardern, "As an immediate next step I hope that senior AWS representatives in New Zealand could meet with you and appropriate ministers to discuss this proposal in more detail."

It is not clear what became of that request, or whether the other five issues it raised were addressed as a result of AWS's letter.

Ardern met with top leaders at Amazon and Microsoft in the US in May this year.

AWS needed approval from the Overseas Investment Office (OIO), and got that in March this year.

"We would be grateful for the support of the New Zealand Government in facilitating, as appropriate, the timely consideration of consent applications to support the earliest possible infrastructure launch," it said in its September 2021 letter, saying AWS would commence the application.

The OIO in granting the consent on 25 March for a 'significant business assets only' consent, said, "The applicant has satisfied the investor test and national interest test criteria". The OIO's timeframe to assess this type of consent is 35 working days.

AWS said in the 2021 letter it wanted to replace its cloud framework agreement with the government.

new agreement that allows eligible government agencies to buy public cloud services from AWS under standardised terms kicked off in July this year.

Jobs, water, energy

AWS has embarked on IT training, including at polytechs, aimed to cover 20,000 trainees a year for five years.

AWS said in the letter to Ardern it wanted a hand with talking to Auckland Council about possible investment in water management projects and smart water tech.

On the regulator front, it said it was "eager [to] work with the Reserve Bank to demonstrate the compliance, security and business benefits of cloud services in the banking sector".

Amazon talked up cloud data and analytics to the Prime Minister, for boosting climate change work and the energy sector, where "regulatory reviews present a rare opportunity for New Zealand to leverage global best practices".

The OIA correspondence also includes Google asking if Ardern could open its new Auckland offices in late 2021. Her diary does not show her doing that.

Google is not building data centres here, but said it employed about 50 people and was starting up a local software engineering team.

'Collaborations ... are increasing'

The prime minister in May this year met AWS chief executive Adam Selipsky and Microsoft President Brad Smith in Seattle, an occasion Microsoft used to tout its connections for New Zealand companies to "sell their solutions to millions of Microsoft customers around the world".

In July, Microsoft ran a podcast called 'Tools and Weapons', where Smith interviewed Ardern about online extremism.

The OIA of communications with the prime minister includes an Microsoft overview of the July podcast's aim and logistics, saying: "We'll send through your episode edit for review, along with materials to help you promote the podcast through your channels."

Microsoft's Smith had interviewed Ardern back in November 2020 as part of a virtual summit of APEC chief executives and governments.

"Microsoft's collaborations with New Zealand at a governmental level are increasing," said an article linked to this, from a cloud-promoting company written by a PR staffer who works for Spark subsidiary CCL.

Newshub quoted Smith at this event calling New Zealand a "beacon of hope" over the Christchurch Call, and discussing climate change.

A smaller invite

In June this year, a relative tech minnow, Catalyst Cloud, emailed Ardern, congratulating her on pushing New Zealand's case in the US with two of the three cloud computing providers authorised by the New Zealand government - AWS and Microsoft.

But Dave Moskovitz also asked if Ardern knew about the third, Catalyst itself, "based right here in Wellington".

It was the only one "owned by New Zealanders, answers only to the New Zealand legal system, whose purpose is specifically for the benefit of New Zealand".

"We don't own superyachts, private jets, or spacecraft," Moskovitz said.

"I drive around in a 2007 Prius because it's the right thing to do.

"We support people and organisations who are aligned to our values of being kind and doing the right thing - the other two providers have questionable credentials in their business ethics."

He suggested Ardern's work to stop web-hate through the Christchurch Call would have shown her how hard it was to influence AWS, Microsoft and others.

"We believe it is critical to have critical New Zealand resources controlled by New Zealanders who are answerable to the New Zealand Government."

Moskovitz invited Ardern to visit Catalyst's head office in Willis St.

He told RNZ that she did not visit.

"Her EA said there was no room in her schedule 'this year'," Moskovitz said.