The Vero Centre – a Turkey-New Zealand connection in a globalised world

I have to tell you I’m not a big reader of Forbes magazine, nor do I visit their website much. Occasionally I want to check whether Bill Gates is still the richest man in the world or if not, which Mexican, Indian or Russian oligarch has temporarily knocked him off his perch. Maybe someone I know has sneaked into the Top 500 and I can seek to renew an old friendship. Apart from that, I guess my income has never really put me in the bracket for readership or invitations to join the club.
Two NZ poets with a message for the world
 – Glover and Tuwhare
My recent visit was the result of following a link from a New Zealand news site I use to keep up with what’s going on down there in the land of my fathers – and also, I confess, because I had been stung by a barb from a friend who suggested I needed to broaden the scope of my reading.
The news item was summarising an analysis of the New Zealand economy by a bright young man calling himself Jesse Colombo (his real name?). The essence of his argument is that NZ’s economy has all the hallmarks of a bubble and is likely to burst before too much longer. Commentators in the Land of the Long White Cloud have been quick to make light of Mr Colombo’s assessment, but interestingly, they don’t seem to disagree with any of his evidence – merely the conclusions he draws.
I used to take a more serious interest in economic conditions in NZ, but since I have been living in Istanbul, my main concern has been the depreciating exchange rate of my Turkish Liras when I have to travel or send money back downunder. This is indeed one of Colombo’s points: that the Kiwi dollar is overvalued, not only against the TL, but against all the major world currencies.
Other indicators he discusses are:
  • The financial sector has replaced farming as the largest contributor to the economy;
  • Home mortgages represent an uncomfortably high percentage of bank portfolios. Most of these have floating interest rates – fine while rates are low, but Colombo predicts that they will rise, and soon;
  • NZ has one of the most over-valued property markets in the world;
  • The ratio of household debt to GDP is even worse than the United States;
  • Government debt, which fell steadily through the 1990s and early 2000s, has nearly tripled in the last five years.

Well, it’s many years since I had a mortgage in New Zealand. On the other hand I do try to visit once a year, and I too have long considered the $NZ absurdly over-valued. Not many years ago there was parity with the Turkish Lira – now I need nearly 2 TL to buy 1 $Kiwi.  And although I love my hometown Auckland, I cannot understand how an average house there can possibly be worth the current selling price of $NZ 700,000.
Auckland is not quite the one-horse, one-street town I remember from my youth. These days the CBD is making efforts to extend at least a block east and west of Queen St, and on my last two visits I have strolled up Shortland St (no connection to the long-running TV soap) to a café in the Vero Centre, a 40-floor tower block its website informs me is New Zealand’s premier business address.’ This year, with a little time to kill while waiting for the friends I had arranged to meet, I wandered around the lobby with its ‘distinct South Pacific feel . . . a showcase of New Zealand art’.
Probably I should have trod a little more carefully. Centrepiece in the lobby is a 6-7 metre high structure resembling a tyre-less bicycle wheel, the work of one Andrew Drummond, an exponent, so I’m told, of performance art. Well, the wheel does indeed perform, rotating slowly on its axis – or at least it did until I edged alongside it to get a photograph of something on the wall. It was only later that I noticed a line drawn on the floor and a sign advising visitors not to step inside the demarcated zone. I felt grateful that I hadn’t set off an alarm attracting security guards to throw me out into what I understand has aspirations to become Auckland’s version of Wall Street.
What I wanted to photograph was a quotation among many by well-known local and international personages covering one of the lobby walls. There it was, in raised brass lettering, Times New Roman font – the much-quoted words of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, addressed to the mothers of the young lads from the British Empire who had left their mortal remains on the killing fields of Gallipoli so many years ago. I was touched, I can tell you – not merely once again by the magnanimous words of the victorious commander who harboured no resentment against those who had invaded his homeland; but that some influential people in my own country have recognized this significant gesture of goodwill.
On the wall nearby were the words of John Clarke, aka Fred Dagg, reminding us that ‘We [New Zealanders] don’t know how lucky we are.’ Some clearly need reminding, particularly those who were ungratefully throwing eggs and stones at the Prime Minister a few days ago. Clarke was a local comedian popular in the mid-70s for satirizing NZ politicians and way-of-life at a time when the country had been cast off by Mother England and was struggling to find a new place in the real world of post-oil shock economics. From an earlier and arguably more traumatic time came lines from one of the country’s most-quoted poets, Denis Glover:
Tom’s hand was strong to the plough
Elizabeth’s lips were red,
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.
The refrain is much loved by schoolteachers of English literature as encapsulating a fine example of onomatopoeia. You’d have to say, though, that, by accident or design, the quotation selection panel chose the least significant lines from the poem for their display. I don’t want to read too much into the fact that Vero Insurance is owned by the SuncorpGroup, ‘one of the largest financial and insurance operations in Australasia’, having swallowed most of New Zealand’s historical insurance companies. I will suppress the cynical response that rose within me when I read, in the lobby near the lifts, a list of the building’s tenants, at least twenty-one of which are involved in banking, insurance and finance, and a further nine are law firms.
Wikipedia, however, tells me Suncorp’s Chairman and CEO are two gentlemen with the interesting names of Dr Ziggy Switkowski, and Patrick Snowball. I haven’t got around to checking out Mr Snowball, but Dr Ziggy seems to be a fascinating character, an unusual combination of businessman and nuclear physicist – having been awarded the ‘Advance Australia[1] Award’ in 1995 for ‘outstanding achievement in industry and commerce’.
Prior to his association with Suncorp, Switkowski had been CEO of Optus and later, Telstra, overseeing the full privatization of the telecommunications giant. He apparently generated some controversy in Australia when a Commonwealth Government inquiry, of which he was the chairman, recommended that Australia increase its exports of uranium and also work to develop its own nuclear power industry.
In 2011 he also became a director of Lynas Corporation, a company involved in the mining, in Western Australia, of what are known in the trade as ‘rare earths’. Without getting into too much scientific detail, rare earths are chemical elements with scary names like Dysprosium, Ytterbium and Thulium that are essential ingredients in key modern technologies such as colorants for glasses and enamels, self-cleaning ovens, lasers, PET scan detectors, nuclear batteries and ultra-powerful permanent magnets.
China has long been the world’s major producer and exporter of rare earths, but has recently looked to scale down its operations for economic and environmental reasons. Well, when China starts having environmental concerns about an industry, it is surely time for others to take notice. Despite the fact that Lynas mines its rare earths in Western Australia, it seems they have chosen to set up their processing plant in Malaysia, citing cost benefits. What that generally means, in corporate-speak, is that local labour can be employed for wages far below those acceptable in the home country, in a market where health, safety and environmental protection conditions are considerably less demanding. Local politicians in Pahang province and environmental groups have apparently been protesting against the plant since 2008, and concerns were even raised in an article in the New York Times – in spite of which, LAMP (an innocuous-sounding acronym for the controversial rare earth plant) entered production in 2013.
Denis Glover published his poem ‘The Magpies’ in 1941, when the Second World War was helping to pull New Zealand out of the disastrous economic depression of the 1930s. Glover had a reputation as something of a radical inclining towards anarchic left-wing political views. Apart from the catchy avian sound effects, ‘Magpies’ tells of a young couple, Tom and Elizabeth, who, having worked for years to carve a farm out of the unforgiving bush, lost everything to the bank that foreclosed on their mortgage, though was subsequently unable to find another purchaser willing to take it on. Elizabeth died and Tom went a little ‘light in the head’. . . and the last word belonged to the magpies, whose‘quardle oodle ardle wardle doodling’ is probably as fitting a comment on today’s financial system as it was 70-odd years ago.

[1] The word ‘fair’ omitted, you’ll notice.

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