PRIME Minister Jacinda Ardern told New Zealand Aluminium Smelter (NZAS) workers she hoped the smelter closure timeframe could be significantly longer than the 14 months announced recently.
Ms Ardern and Government ministers met mayors, community leaders, Tiwai workers and union representatives in Invercargill last Thursday to discuss an effective transition to the closure of the smelter. The smelter was set to close in August next year.
Tiwai workers and Etu delegates Cliff Dobbie and Owen Evans have been working at the smelter’s pot room as process controllers for 32 and 20 years, respectively.
They were part of a private meeting with Etu representatives, workers, Ms Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson.
Ms Ardern told them she hoped the time between the smelter’s announcement and closure would be much longer than the announced 14 months.
“They were hoping for a little bit longer, weren’t they? Transition would go between three and five years. That’s what they were sort of hoping,” Mr Dobbie said.
Ms Ardern discussed with community leaders economic opportunities such as aquaculture, research and development of food production, hydrogen, Tesla and data centres.
“The opportunities here are significant,” Ms Ardern said.
“News recently of Rio Tinto’s plans to close the smelter here… gives good reason for us to speed up the work that we’re doing. But what has been clear at the meetings today is that we are all in agreement that a transition is needed.
“That everyone wants high-waged, decent jobs in Southland.
“The question is the timeframe we are all working to.”
She said ultimately the closure decision would be determined by Rio Tinto and power supplier Meridian.
Meridian chief executive Neal Barclay confirmed the parties were still talking.
“Meridian is currently in discussions with Rio Tinto about a staged exit. However, any decision on that front is ultimately up to Rio Tinto,” he said.
“From Meridian’s perspective, we’ve been seriously negotiating with Rio Tinto for quite some time.
“We made a meaningful offer, but ultimately Rio Tinto has decided to walk away.”
There had been speculation Meridian might offer the smelter an improved deal which would slow the smelter’s closure and buy time for grid upgrades needed to carry power from Manapouri further north. It had been reported it could take five to eight years and more than $500 million to complete work to efficiently distribute surplus power from the south across the whole country.
A Rio Tinto spokeswoman said any offer to improve the total energy cost to the smelter would be reviewed and considered in good faith by NZAS.
Southland Chamber of Commerce chairman Neil McAra said the talks held with Ms Ardern were positive.
“Everyone realises a 12-month closure is in no-one’s interest and it’s now time to work with all parties to find a solution.”
Southland needed time to transition so jobs could be retained in the long term, he said.
Ms Ardern brushed aside comments Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters had made about the need for the Government to save the smelter.