Around mid July 2016, Fairfax Media raised the spectre of NZ ‘steel dumping’ claims on imports from China.

The response from our Prime Minister was to play it down, whilst MBIE would not even confirm or deny whether it had received two complaints from NZ producers. Trade Minister Todd McClay, whilst in Indonesia, said it was not appropriate for him to comment politically!

Such reluctance from our Government and its officials to clarify what the true situation is has been further clouded by an “out of left field” rejection of very recent exports of Zespri kiwifruit by China, because of phyto-sanitary concerns – causing Zespri to further tighten its already stringent handling protocols.

Comments from Wellington quickly denied that the rumoured steel dumping claims had any connection with a somewhat coincidental non-tariff barrier for NZ kiwifruit.

Industry thoughts from Ullrich Aluminium CEO Gilbert Ullrich.

All parties, including Zespri have been very circumspect in their response, seemingly to avoid any ramping-up of retaliation from Beijing, or the prospects of compromising the planned re-negotiation by MFAT officials of the existing FTA with China (originally commencing from October 2008).

Such apparent reluctance by our nation’s political representatives to be transparent to its own business sector makes for less confidence, and the absence of clarity compromises sound forward planning.

You may ask why does an aluminium manufacturer and fabricator enter a debate on NZ steel dumping claims? Well, it’s quite simple.

As the CEO of an Australasian company with a chain of 46 branches, I am in a position to observe the different approaches by our respective governments (and in Australia, by their States too), and the Australian aluminium industry has taken on and won several anti-dumping cases on extruded aluminium and aluminium products (like ladders and platforms).

However, in NZ, whilst the highest standards of design and strength are applied to our products, the same standards (or even border inspection) do not appear to be applied to say imported aluminium ladders. And failures with imported ladders have been a common problem as have rock bottom prices, because of cheap substandard materials!

We are also well aware of substandard steel pile casings not meeting standards on bridges and overpasses on the road construction south to Hamilton, and serious concerns about the strength and flexibility of reinforcing mesh. So as someone who started work serving in the steel and manufacturing industries, including fabrication, welding and erection work in steel buildings, and now running an Australasian-wide company, I can relate to such challenges from firsthand experience.

Where has the importance, prestige and benefits of local manufacturing, i.e. “manufactured in NZ”, to NZ Inc gone? Not to mention the value-added benefits of our exports for jobs, taxes, local economy, education, career development, etc?

And if trade commentators often mention that NZ needs to “export more value-added products”, then to achieve that expectation NZ exporters of NZ-made goods need to have a reasonable-sized home market as a “springboard”, from which to support the initial costs of exporting to new markets.

So therefore, substandard imports are an impediment to creating that very crucial local market as a “beachhead” to export markets!

This, of course, brings me to the next point and that is, in a country prone to “seismic activity” (like Christchurch recently, and Napier and Murchison much earlier), such factors as robust ties, bolts, rivets, and fastenings must be totally compliant, with independent stringent testing – along with the pillars, beams, claddings, and glass (and of course the foundations, where steel piles are involved). And on the point of claddings (these must be fire-proof, as not all metals are), and glass (where toughened safety glass is essential for balconies, and certain doors and windows).

Finally, environmental factors are increasingly entering into large buildings and other structures, like bridges. In the case of aluminium from NZ, the Bluff smelter is totally powered by carbon-neutral hydro-electricity, as are our own extrusion presses in Hamilton – and the relative lightness of aluminium makes for lower fuel use in transport per Kg of product. It is also more resistant to the elements.

And carbon footprints are being increasingly considered by society, with more and more commercial buildings being described as Green Buildings – equipped with even roof-top gardens – along with solar power panels.

So, with the large building boom ahead of us in NZ, but particularly in Auckland, can the NZ Government and the Local Councils and Authorities make a conscious effort to not only consider the economies of cost, but the social benefit of jobs for New Zealanders, and of course meet our environmental commitments that our Government has signed up to in Paris?

Enlightened accountants and companies refer to it as the “triple bottom line” in annual reporting. And like so many developed countries do, the Government talks and acts free trade, but at the same actively supports retaining contracts within their borders for the local companies based on the balanced decision making criteria – it’s pragmatic politics within the Rules!