Contractors working on behalf of Mercury Energy, the retail arm of the State Owned Enterprise (SOE) Mighty River Power disconnected the electricity supply at the home of Auckland woman, Folole Muliaga, despite the fact that she needed the power to run her oxygen machine as she was seriously ill with heart and lung disease. The family's protestations fell on deaf ears and they were duly cut off.
Tragically, Folole died 2½ hours later at the age of 44, for the crime of living in poverty, caused through her illness, leaving her husband and four children to grieve for her. They owed Mercury energy a paltry NZ$168.40, and had been attempting to pay off the bill out of her husband's NZ$400 weekly wage. The callous nature of such an act is even more exposed when Mercury Energy posted a NZ$70million (£28million) profit last year.
This has caused revulsion amongst the New Zealand public who are asking how has this been allowed to happen, and it has led to Mercury Energy's offices being picketed.
It is quite clear that due to Folole's illness and the resulting loss of her job the family has struggled to make ends meet as the welfare state, which was once the cornerstone of New Zealand society has been seriously undermined. However, no one within New Zealand should be forced to live like this and it seriously questions the government's social policy that should have stopped this from happening.
More seriously is the role that SOEs play within New Zealand. Originally power in the Auckland region was run by the nationalised Auckland Electricity Board, as a public service, where everyone worked for the board including the meter readers and the company was run not for profit and there was a policy of no disconnections.
All this changed in the 1980's and 1990's when the concept of SOEs was introduced to run them on commercial lines, and further exaggerated by the national government in the 1990's who introduced competition into the electricity industry! It has to be noted even today there are only four million of us living here so what market is there really? Our nearest neighbours are too far away to export power to!
SOEs have to be run on commercial lines for profit and return a dividend to the government, and they have abandoned any public service ethos they once had, as the chief executives officers (CEOs) of SOEs enriched themselves with so-called "market rate pay packets", sacked workers and contracted out services to private firms, and hiked prices to increase profits, thus fracturing the service and accountability to the public. This also explains why Solid Energy sent spies into environmentalist groups protesting at coal mining on the South Island.
Helen Clarke (Prime Minister) along with Trevor Mallard (Minister for SOE) were visibly shocked at the news of Folole's death and basically said that this should never have happened, but we cannot tell the CEO what do! (My emphasis). They are absolutely correct about the first point, but the Labour Government is more concerned about being one of the friendliest nations on the planet towards big business, than to tackle the commercial corporatisation of the former nationalised industries and the issues faced by workers.
From a labour movement perspective what is the way forward? The immediate task of the Labour Government should be take back full control of the SOEs and abolish the market lead approach as the first step. It needs to go much further than before and put them under workers' control and management and the introduction of a planned economy by the nationalisation of the major corporations that really do ruin/run our lives. Only then can we truly begin to stop tragedies like this from happening again.