New Internationalist

Interview about The Roger Award

Issue 368

Make way Golden Globes. There’s a new international trophy strutting the world stage. Step aside Oscar. Here comes The Roger.

Each year four or five eminent judges – academics, community leaders, artists, even sportspeople – come together to confer The Roger on a transnational corporation operating in New Zealand/Aotearoa. And the worst must win. US agriculture giant Monsanto, British American Tobacco (which claims a whopping 80 per cent of New Zealand’s tobacco market) and the Canadian power company TransAlta are amongst the prestigious list of previous award winners.

Murray Horton has helped to co-ordinate the award since it started in 1997. ‘Transnational corporations usually only get attention when they’ve done something completely revolting. The rest of the time there’s a whole industry out there – media, PR companies, politicians – telling transnationals how good they are. We operate a small-scale reality check.’

This year’s winner – the Japanese company Juken Nissho, which operates three wood processing plants in New Zealand/Aotearoa – outshone the seven other finalists for ‘its horrifying safety record in its plants [269 notifications of serious harm to its workers between 1995 and 2003] and its arrogant disregard for the welfare of the Kaitaia community’ affected by its factory emissions.

“How dare the Mayor of Dunedin judge us as the worst transnational in New Zealand when – in the same week – we are going to hand over to them a one-million-dollar helicopter with our name on it.”

Not that the winner stepped up to collect its award. The trophy – a globe of scrap metal replete with barbed wire and bullets – is just the right size to be driven to the award ceremony in the boot of a car. The privatized rail system operators, TranzRail – this year inducted into the Hall of Shame after winning The Roger three times – is the only winner to seek physical possession of the trophy. That was in 1998 when its first award was announced. Murray thinks that the company wanted it for PR purposes. ‘They came out screaming about Sukhi Turner, an inaugural Roger Award judge: “How dare the Mayor of Dunedin judge us as the worst transnational in New Zealand when – in the same week – we are going to hand over to them a one-million-dollar helicopter with our name on it.” In the true corporate spirit of the awards, Mayor Sukhi Turner took the opportunity to promote another poor performer: “I’ve got a right to an opinion. And in any event, I voted for INL”.’ INL (Independent Newspapers Ltd) – then controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd – published around 70 per cent of New Zealand’s newspapers, magazines and sporting publications at the time, and received second-place honours that year.

With comments like this you won’t see the Roger awards on the front page of the newspapers. But in this, the seventh year of the award, you can read about the ceremony in many New Zealand papers – on page 6, perhaps, or maybe in the Business section. These spotlights enabling the public to see more clearly some appalling big-business practices are just one of the benefits that Murray sees from the award. It’s also attracting academic attention and useful research.

When an accountancy lecturer read about the award, she rang me and volunteered to go through the accounts and annual reports of this year’s winner. She found that Juken Nissho appeared to be trading while it was insolvent, seemed to be passing transactions through related parties to shift profits offshore, and hadn’t paid tax in the last five years. She’s going to look at the accounts again for us next year.’

The award’s name is in honour of former New Zealand Minister of Finance, Sir Roger Douglas. Roger is renowned for having done Reaganomics better than Maggie Thatcher during the 1980s. Sporting a competitive spirit worthy of the most extreme form of laissez-faire capitalism, Roger made sure that New Zealand’s public resources became the most privatized in the Western world. Through his policies, the New Zealand economy slipped increasingly into the hands of a small number of large transnational corporations. Between 1989 and 2003, foreign ownership of New Zealand companies increased by over 400 per cent.

The Roger spotlights these imbalances. Murray explains that it ‘allows activists to set an agenda ourselves rather than just reacting’. Already, it is inspiring others. Two NGOs have just conferred an award for the worst transnational in Fiji. It is called Drau-Ni-Salato, which refers to the leaf of a plant that causes an irritating itch. And – judging by The Roger – there’s many a corporate suit in which that itch can be stitched.

Do you have a nomination for a Roger award? Two New Zealand NGOs – GATT Watchdog and Campaign against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA) – take it in turns to co-ordinate the Award. This year’s nominations can be sent to Box 1905, Christchurch, New Zealand; email: notoapec@clear.net.nz

Murray Horton talked with Chris Richards

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