Fran O’Sullivan: Let’s back NZ to win this battle for Infratil

OPINION:

It wasn’t long before the Kiwi hired guns came out of the woodwork when I wrote that the New Zealand “national interest” should be top of mind when the Government (aka Grant Robertson) gets to consider whether the giant AustralianSuper should be allowed to mop up Infratil or whether it should stay in New Zealand ownership.

It’s notable that AustralianSuper has hired two Wellington-based specialists. One is SenateSHJ, whose founding partner — the redoubtable Neil Green — has “deep experience in issues relating to the energy, transport, finance and government sectors” according to the firm’s website, and headed the team on the successful $1.7 billion Mighty River Power sharemarket listing in 2013.

And there’s the even moreredoubtable Mark Unsworth, citedon the Saunders Unsworth website as one of NZ’s most highly respected and experienced lobbyists. It calls him “a trusted and recognised figure in the halls of Parliament” who “specialises in building strong and enduring personal relationships with politicians, advisers and civil servants”, and whose style “has assisted both leading NZ and multi-national companies with their relationships with Government”.

These are two of the most formidable operators in Wellington. They are there to convince shareholders, journalists, regulators and Cabinet ministers that a sale of Infratil toAustralianSupershould not be blocked.
Tough call.

Apart from ACC, which is in a seemingly indecent haste to see Infratil prised out of Morrison & Co’s effective management, the local sentiment seems to be against AustralianSuper. It’s not just news media which have a strong regard for Infratiland its management, but also NZ-domiciled funds.

Obviously, AustralianSuper has its eyes on Infratil’s international infrastructure portfolio. Infratil has already noted the Australian proposal materially undervalues the significant renewable energy and digital infrastructure platforms held by the NZ target.

On the other side of the Tasman, columnists like theAustralian’s John Durie have challenged the sizeable management fee.

The AustralianSuper proposal is pitched at considerably less than Infratil’s breakup value.

Even if Infratil’s shareholders ultimately reach an agreement with AustralianSuper, or the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), which is also said to be sniffing about, taking the infrastructure investor out of effective New Zealand control would be a blow not just to the NZX, but also to nationhood.

It would be a stretch to say the CPP has a score to settle with Infratil after its prior takeover attempt for Auckland Airport, which was foiled to some extent by skilful lobbying by Infratil’s founder, the late Lloyd Morrison. It was Morrison who convinced key Cabinet ministers it should not be allowed to go ahead and whipped up a storm behind the scenes with theairport board.

It was later revealed that Infratil was keen on Auckland Airport itself but its own confidential offer fell well short of an acceptable price.

Morrison & Co — which manages Infratil — has acontractwith five years to run. A buyer would presumably have to come to an arrangement to take out Morrison & Co.

Ultimately it will come down to price. If AustralianSuper waves sufficient dollars at Infratil, its board will have to give the proposal serious consideration.

But as I wrote last week, surely Infratil’s importance is of sufficient weight to justify the NZ Super Fund taking a defensive stake.

The two organisations could then continue to co-invest in some very major and transformative plays.

It was the NZ Super Fund and Infratil which combined to acquire Shell’s downstream business in New Zealand, leading to the formation of the NZX-listed Z Energy. They then went on to take a combined stake in Metlifecare, among other companies, on both sides of the Tasman.

These profitable deals were ultimately to the betterment of New Zealand superannuitants over the longer run.

Then there is the more recently acquired Vodafone. This was a triumph for New Zealand ownership, bringing under Kiwi control the country’s second largest telco. Both Vodafone and its rival Spark were essential to maintaining business and domestic connections during the Covid crisis. The upshot ofchanged work patterns is that there will inevitably have to be significantly more investment in telco infrastructure and databanks to underpin NZ’s future.

Which ownership structure is likely to be more forward-thinking in this country’s interest?

At the political barbecues over the summer break, the politicians should have this issue on their radar.

It requires serious consideration.

Robertson ultimately holds the pen on the Infratil deal. AustralianSuper will likely have a confidential application in front of the Overseas Investment Office. Changes to the foreign investment legislation nominate infrastructure investments as key candidates for consideration by Cabinet ministers on “national interest” grounds.

It’s worth recalling Robertson’s words when Morrison died. “Above all things, Lloyd was a passionate Wellingtonian who had a desire to see his city, region and country prosper.

“His contribution to and investment in New Zealand’s infrastructure and economic development was massive.” He had an “enormous pride and faith in New Zealand”.

Morrison sure did.

If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught NZ anything, it should be to have faith in New Zealanders,their ingenuity and strength — and to back it.

Morrison & Co have built a strong and successful company.

Let’s for once back one of our own companies for future success rather than selling it off into foreign hands.

If we can be world-beating with Covid, why not with business?

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