Jane Patterson, Political Editor
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has reined in New Zealand First minister Shane Jones after he called for the chairman of Air New Zealand to be sacked.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones. Photo: RNZ
Mr Jones, who is the Regional Economic Development Minister, has put Air New Zealand's board and its chief executive on notice, as the row over its decisions to stop flying to some regional towns deepens.
Air New Zealand this month withdrew its service into Kāpiti Coast, giving the region just three weeks notice that it would pull out of the daily Auckland-Kāpiti flight.
It followed a move three years ago to stop flying to Kaitaia, Whakatāne, Westport and Taupō.
Mr Jones said the airline company was a "corporate taniwha" that needed to stop short-changing services to the regions.
But, Ms Ardern said as a major shareholder in New Zealand, the government had to ensure it did not overstep the mark.
"I've certainly explained to him that he is absolutely entitled to an opinion that he has shared, but suggesting anyone from the Board should go, is a step too far."
It was not a sacking offence for anyone involved, Ms Ardern said.
"Not for any Air New Zealand board member, not for Shane, he's expressed an opinion, one that I know that some New Zealanders will share some sympathy for, particularly those in the regions but suggesting someone should be sacked is too far."
Ms Ardern said Mr Jones had listened to her, and "acknowledged" what she was saying.
Jones unapologetic over comments
Mr Jones is unapologetic over his scathing comments, but he does accept he has no authority to remove any member of the Board.
When asked if he still wanted Air New Zealand chair Tony Carter to resign, Mr Jones said he was aware Mr Carter was "reportedly upset" by his remarks.
"And he's a powerful man, he's a director on Fletcher Building... after their $1 billion loss, I accept Tony will take not an ounce of notice of what I say."
But he accepted what he had been told by the Prime Minister.
"That I don't have the authority to bring into being the disappearance of the chairman or anyone on the Board.
"But if anyone on that Board believes they are going to muzzle me as a champion for the provinces, then they are sadly mistaken."
Mr Jones did not believe anyone board member would view his comments as bullying.
"Check the salaries or the directors fees of the Board and if one politician using some florid rhetoric they can see that to be bullying, then really..."
"They're handsomely paid, they should be able to tolerate political opinion, political challenges - if you don't like that don't take the directors' salary," he said.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson said Air New Zealand was an independent company, and one that made its own decisions.
He said he disagreed with the comments made by Mr Jones.
"In terms of the Board chair or the Chief Executive, Air New Zealand is a successful company, it operates well in a commercial environment.
"From time to time politicians of all stripes might disagree with individual decisions made by Air New Zealand, but the Board chair and the Chief Executive are doing a good job."
Deputy Prime Minister, State Owned Enterprises Minister and the leader of New Zealand First, Winston Peters said Air New Zealand could not just do what it wanted, as it still had a majority government shareholding.
"Sorry, it's called accountability, you're dealing with a publicly owned enterprise in the main.
"When we bailed them out many years ago - and no-one in the Air New Zealand set-up then was concerned about what politicians were saying - they were only too pleased for us to stand-up."
And National's spokesperson for economic development, Paul Goldsmith, said while Mr Jones might be reflecting legitimate regional frustration with Air New Zealand, he was going too far with his personal attacks on business leaders.
Mr Goldsmith said the Minister needed to show some discipline.
Meanwhile, Mr Jones will attend the dinner for President Barack Obama - co-hosted by Air New Zealand in Auckland tomorrow - the only New Zealand First MP to be there.
There was no problem with him going, he said, even with the comments he had made this week.
"I've got every right to go and listen to one of the greatest Western leaders in my lifetime."
He had several ties to the United States, he said, including being a former president of the US/NZ Friendship Group and a graduate of an American University.
"As a proxy for the 52 percent of Air New Zealand, I'll go where I like."
Board chairman Tony Carter has not responded to RNZ requests for comment.