EDITORIAL:

If anyone needs convincing the Ports of Auckland company is a commercial maverick that pretty much pleases itself, its recent idea of a get-out-of-jail-free card seems to clinch it.

Early in its 2021-2024 draft statement of corporate intent to owner Auckland Council last month, the port noted it was required by the Port Companies Act 1988 to “operate as a successful business” and that “the Act does not define what it means by successful – this is left to the shareholder and the port company to define”.

This presumably to prepare the ground for the next news 2021 had been a tough year all around.

And for the public delivery last week of another year of poor financial and productivity results.

These showed long-suffering Auckland ratepayers would only get a $3.7m dividend from an operation with revenue of $226m ($231m:2020) and net profit of $45.6m, $27.6m of which was due to leaping investment property values. In 2020, the dividend wasn’t much better at $4.9m.

Questioning by the Herald revealed in the past five years, the port has spent more than $500m on infrastructure development, the bulk of which is a vexed container terminal automation project, yet to be implemented.

Mayor Phil Goff’s reaction was as predictable as the poor result – “disappointing but expected”.

But he livened up when the annual report revealed chief executive Tony Gibson, who departed in high-dudgeon in June after a string of damning headlines about the port, got a nearly $1m payout on top of his $800,000 annual pay.

We’re told the payment floored the council. It doesn’t dispute the port’s right to decide the payment, but what happened to their “no surprises” deal? Goff wants an explanation from the port chair Bill Osborne – he exits this month – on behalf of ruffled councillors.

Of real interest is who signed off on the payment? The mayor “assumes” it was the board’s remuneration committee. That would be normal commercial process but in the case of this dysfunctional company, it’s a big assumption. As usual, the port isn’t saying.

No surprise there. The port’s been left to its own devices for years running one of the country’s most valuable infrastructure sites, the main gateway for imports. It’s not used to being called to account. As councillor Chris Darby says, the council’s been “a lazy owner”. Also, this is an employment matter – the port says the payment met its contractual obligations to Gibson.

The fact is Goff and his councillors have been under public pressure over the port since the pandemic outbreak, subsequent shipping and crippling supply chain congestion and revelations of the port’s dismal health and safety culture which has landed it in court twice over workplace fatalities.

It has prompted the council to drive a port board overhaul. Goff will be influential in the choice of new CEO. The worst kept secret in Auckland is that Goff-backed experienced listed company director Jan Dawson will be the port’s new chair.

It is overdue action that undercuts previous responses from Goff’s office to questions about the port’s performance, that the Port Companies Act prevents a port owner’s involvement in operational matters.

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