Non-Market Player: A Greenpeace protester position's himself in the path of the Orient Explorer as part of the ultimately successful campaign to drive deep-sea oil prospector, Petrobras, out of the Raukumara Basin. The National Government now proposes to make such protests illegal. It is the great paradox of "free" markets that they require an ever-stronger state to keep them functioning.
AT THE HEART of the so-called “free market” is a puzzling paradox.
Around the world, the justification for implementing free market policies was said to be the damaging effects of state intervention on economic performance. In his inaugural address, that arch free-marketeer, President Ronald Reagan, warned his fellow Americans that “Government isn’t the solution … Government is the problem.”
For prosperity to be guaranteed, argued the free marketeers, the power of the state must be curtailed, and its interfering hands forcefully removed from the economic levers.
The paradox of the free market lies in the political implications of those two words: “curtailed” and “forcefully”.
To prevent non-market players from intervening in the economic life of society and increase the scope and freedom of market forces, the power of the state must not, under any circumstances, be “curtailed”. Quite the opposite, in fact: to protect the operations of the free market, the capacity of the State to act “forcefully” must be increased.
The latest proof of the free-market paradox comes in the form of an announcement from Energy and Resources Minister, Simon Bridges.
In his media statement of 31 March, Mr Bridges states:
“The Government is proposing stronger measures to protect offshore petroleum and minerals activity from unlawful interference”.
In a Supplementary Order Paper to the Crown Minerals (Permitting and Crown Land) Bill the Cabinet has provided for a firming up of the protection available to “lawful offshore petroleum and minerals activity”. The SOP, to be tabled in Parliament, also gives new enforcement powers to police and defence force personnel.
Explaining the Government’s decision, Mr Bridges points to recent attempts to “seriously disrupt lawful mining and related activities”. Such actions, says the Minister, “impose significant costs on companies carrying out legitimate activities under permits, and present very serious health hazards and safety risks”.
Those “recent activities” no doubt refer to the successful 2012 campaign by Greenpeace and a local Maori organisation, Te Whanau a Apanui, to disrupt and dissuade the giant, state-owned Brazilian energy company, Petrobras, from continuing its deep-sea oil prospecting in the Raukumara Basin off East Cape.
The most effective protest action of the Greenpeace/ Te Whanau a Apanui Campaign involved a small flotilla of seven boats sailing into Petrobras’s prospecting zone and taking up positions around its large survey vessel, the Orient Explorer.
When a local Maori fisherman, Elvis Teddy, steered his own vessel, the San Pietro, across the Orient Explorer’s path, dropping buoys and long-lines, the National-led Government authorised the Police and New Zealand Defence Force naval units to move in and arrest him.
Powerful Combination: Elvis Teddy's San Pietro sails towards its confrontation with the Orient Explorer. The pairing of Greenpeace and Te Whanau a Apanui proved to be a winning political formula in the campaign against deep-sea oil prospecting off East Cape.
To the Government’s dismay, the charges against Mr Teddy were later dropped. The Court declined jurisdiction because the protest action took place outside New Zealand’s twelve nautical miles territorial limit.
Earlier this year, on 13 January, Petrobras announced it was pulling out of New Zealand.
Minister Bridges “stronger measures” are designed to prevent any further protest interventions along the lines of those developed by Greenpeace/ Te Whanau A Apanui.
“The changes address a gap in the current legislation. They provide an effective deterrent, and readily workable operational powers, to act against unlawful interference with legitimate exploration and production activities.” Mr Bridges stated.
Future protest groups face jail sentences and massive fines if they violate a “notified minimum non-interference distance” of up to 500 metres.
What just happened here?
The National-led Government is keen to develop energy potential of the Raukumara Basin. Accordingly, it invites large multinational energy companies to acquire the necessary permits and begin prospecting.
Greenpeace, in alliance with Te Whanau a Apanui, oppose deep-sea oil drilling as an unacceptable threat to both the kai moana of local whanau and hapu, and the acutely vulnerable deep sea environment. They point to the devastating Deepwater Horizon disaster which spilled billions of litres of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Now, consider the State’s role in this classic stand-off.
From the outset it has given preference to market over non-market interests. In spite of the fact that New Zealand lacks both the technology and the financial resources to adequately respond to a deep-sea drilling malfunction on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon spill, it promotes and facilitates deep-sea prospecting in the Raukumara Basin.
Thwarted by the Court’s refusal to punish the behaviour of the protest flotilla, the National-led Government sets about equipping the State with new, quite draconian, powers to protect any future oil-prospecting multinational corporations from the physical obstruction (and attendant publicity) of Greenpeace’s “Stop Deep Sea Oil” protest campaign.
It will soon be perfectly lawful to deploy the New Zealand armed forces to protect and defend not the victims of war or natural disaster, but vast, privately-owned corporations whose profit-seeking activities threaten both the New Zealand environment and economy.
Whose freedom is the Government protecting here? The market’s, or our own?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 April 2013.