The Nation: Shane Jones
On Newshub Nation: Tova O'Brien interviews Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones
Tova O’Brien: He's the self-styled champion for the north - as he so often likes to remind us - the first citizen of the provinces, but does Shane Jones' bluster and bravado mean he gets away with far more than most other ministers? Once again he's in hot water, once again he's been reprimanded by the Prime Minister and once again it's over allegations of a conflict of interest and interfering in a judicial process. Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones joins me now. Kia ora, Matua. Thank you for joining us. Minister Jones, you directly spoke to the Chief Executive of the NZ Transport Agency about its case against Stan Semenoff Logging failing to meet safety standards. A High Court case, you’re a minister, you’re not allowed to interfere. Why did you?
Shane Jones: No, well, the facts are being distorted by the National Party. Not once have I ever had anything to do with the prosecution decision that you refer to. Those decisions, I imagine, are made in windowless rooms by lawyers and an independent body. I have no delegations for those matters. The brief discussion I had with the acting CEO of NZTA, I’m glad to see, has been taken up now by the industry leadership. I accept, however, the cautionary words that the Prime Minister expressed with me. It is a distraction. It is very difficult to maintain the entirety of the Cabinet Manual if perceptions start to grow that a minister’s interfering with a High Court case. But I’ve probably seen more High Court cases and, in the Maori Fisheries, funded more High Court cases than any other MP. I know exactly where the boundary line is.
But you’re related to the managing director of this Northland company. You once received a donation from him. What made you think it was appropriate to get involved and make that call to the NZTA CE?
You see, I have not made any call to the NZTA CEO. I have raised, in Parliament, with him issues that are now actually being agreed to by the broad leadership of the industry, and people misapprehend what my role is. My role is to isolate those issues that time to time thwart and undermine regional development. Now, try as much as the Tories might to brand me as someone breaking High Court rules, the reality is I am a feisty, earthy, industrial-grade politician. That’s what the people expect of me, and when I’ve been around the motu, the country, over the last two weeks, not one single garden-variety Kiwi has raised this with me as being a problem.
That’s not necessarily on them, though, and being feisty and industrial-grade doesn’t preclude you from the Cabinet Manual and interfering in judicial processes is against the Cabinet Manual. The NZTA had taken a case against Semenoff Logging.
And that case is, I presume, going to continue in the High Court, and I have nothing to do with that case. I’ve never had anything to do with that case. They are a body that exercises statutory power, and our democracy works on the basis that when we who hold power, i.e. the officials, they’re capable of looking after themselves and having their decision tested in any court. Just because I raise an issue about the essential importance of logistics, supply-chain, doesn’t mean that I’m involved in a High Court case. I absolutely reject-
The reason the ministers need to keep an arm’s length is because of ministerial influence, so even having that conversation can be perceived as influence.
So this is where, Tova, I think that you run the risk of repeating non-credible memes being driven by the National Party. I utterly reject their assertions, and the reality is that I will remain the champion of the regions. The industry love my contributions. From a party that is pro-industry, you should not expect me to shut up. Just because I say things that make the windy bureaucrats feel a bit nervous, in actual fact that makes me more popular amongst the people who back me.
Yeah, there’s windy bureaucrats and then there’s ministerial interference. But anyway, this isn’t the first time you’ve been accused of this. You were also accused of interfering in legal proceedings against fishing company, Talleys, the PM hauled you over the coals for overstepping with the Serious Fraud Office investigation. You have form here.
Well, I don’t recall saying anything untoward about the SFO. I remember giving a general debate speech.
It was enough for the Prime Minister to give you a call and to tell you not to.
Yeah, I mean, the reality is that there’s the role that I have as a minister and then there’s the role that I have as a politician. Look, I wouldn’t read too much in it. I think that people from time to time in the media misapprehend the role that I have. In terms of any other court cases — well, I’ve got nothing to say about them. The people that are embroiled in litigation, they can look after themselves.
So was the Prime Minister wrong to reprimand you?
No, she is totally within her rights to do what she does. I thoroughly understand the Westminster system of democracy. I’ve just got a very robust— and as I’ve said, I’m a retail politician, I’m industrial-grade and I don’t care if it sounds as if I’m always leading with my chin. That is what the people who support me expect me to do.
Yeah, perhaps there needs to be more of a demarcation between those two hats because former National minister, Maurice Williamson, he interfered in a police case, made a call, also said he wasn’t trying to influence an active police case, but he was forced to offer his resignation to the then Prime Minister and resigned. Have you offered your resignation to the Prime Minister at any point?
The difference between Maurice Williamson and me is that I was an ambassador, then I became a politician. Maurice was a politician, now he’s an ambassador in America. He’s done it the other way round.
Have you offered your resignation to the Prime Minister at any point?
Oh, no. Absolutely not.
OK, what about — because it looks a bit like the Prime Minister, she kind of hauls you into the office, says, ‘Don’t do this, Shane.’ You say, ‘Sure, sure, sure.’ Then you walk out and perhaps do it again. Does she have any control over you?
No, I take very seriously what the Prime Minister says, but the Prime Minister also realises that there has never been a consistently loud, focused voice from the regions and the provinces. She, I believe, realises that from time to time there might be a bit of bump and grind, and she’s well within her rights to caution me to ensure that I don’t represent an unwelcome distraction to the overarching narrative of the government. I don’t believe I do. In fact, where I go, I’m met with popular acclamation.
What about Winston Peters? Has he ever chastised you or cautioned you?
What happens in our caucus is tapu. That’s where it stays.
Okay, on the Provincial Growth Fund, how many full-time jobs is your PGF, Provincial Growth Fund, created so far?
Yeah, so the most recent announcement was well over 500. The challenge that I’ve got is that although we’ve allocated $1.6 billion the pace at which the bureaucrats and officials can roll out the approval process, I can’t interfere with that. I can encourage them to go quicker. I do, every week. But at the end of the day, there are strictures that they have to observe in terms of the allocation of public money.
You say over 500, but the list provided by your office says that only 272 full-time jobs have been created so far. That’s a long way off the 10,000 promised.
Yeah, well, look, can we just deal with the 10,000? That 10,000 figure is an extraordinarily important and ambitious figure associated with the full import of the programmes, once they’re up and running. And as I said to you, the Provincial Growth Fund, whilst we are allocating putea, there are other things happening in the provinces. I’m a great supporter of those other things because I’m pro-industry. I’m pro-fishing, I’m pro-dairy, and I’m pro-mining. The fact that oil and gas is actually going to get a boost down in the South Island, then they’re going to find in me a great champion.
Let’s talk about oil and gas. Let’s talk about a region that is crying out for more funding and jobs, Taranaki, thanks in large parts to your government’s oil and gas ban. What responsibility does the Government — and you, as champion of the regions — what responsibility do you have to ensure economic stability there.
Well, I don’t want to go into too much detail, but in the near future there’s going to be a transitional, large meeting up there. But I would say that Taranaki stakeholders, they have various proposals that they’re promoting. There is a proposal doing the rounds called 8 Rivers. That’s associated with storing gas in the ground, using gas for hydrogen energy. But I want to remind everyone, Tova, that when the Prime Minister made her announcement, which I supported, but we secured the on-going existence of entitlements that are already in place, which is why I’m an enthusiast for the various mining entities, oil and gas mining in the South Island, who are rolling out through the process that they’re entitled to do.
OK, so, 8 Rivers, you raise that now, you also raised that last time you were on this programme, last year. But we haven’t heard much more about it, so what’s happening with that? It wants $20 million from the PGF, is that right? Is it going to get that money?
Yeah, well, it’s just going through the process. I mean, obviously these things take a bit of time, because it is an enormously large project. I’m not the only Minister that would make that decision. And, look, I accept that when I associate myself with the oil and gas industry it does lead to criticism. And you mentioned Greenpeace, well, you mentioned the accusations that Greenpeace made against me about a fishing court case. I’ve got no time for their lime-coloured righteousness. And if people in the South Island are allowed to use their rights to explore and develop oil and gas, I know the South Island people want that to happen. And before Greenpeace lecture me about that, they can explain to New Zealand why their boat has been under investigation for polluting the Bluff harbour.
Greenpeace aside, what about Labour and the Greens. What do they think about what you’re saying today?
No, they know, the Prime Minister knows that when we made our announcement, no more fresh mining applications offshore. We did, however, retain the ability of International and Domestic firms to use their current entitlements.
Which means 8 Rivers could go ahead, cause they—
Well, they would need to go through a statutory consent process, but the point I’m making—
With the help of your $20 million dollars from the PGF?
Well, we don’t know what the amount of putea is.
But there is going to be some?
Well let’s not taint the process, allow them to go through the process. Ministers will make a decision, yea or nay. But the point that I’m making — I can’t fund, and we don’t fund everything that happens in provinces. We make decisions that have impacts. An impact that was made from our oil and gas decision is people are legally allowed to continue to explore and invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the South Island.
So, 8 Rivers, for those who don’t know, is a development project – it would create hydrogen, urea, and electricity using natural gasses. So, that’s controversial within your Government. How much biffo is going on behind the scenes between you and David Parker, say?
Oh, no, David Parker is a very good friend of mine. Although as Attorney General, he has been known from time to time to warn me to be very conscious of the blurry lines between my writ as the champion of the provinces and other legal obligations.
OK, let’s move on to Westland Milk. Chinese Company Yili is buying Westland Milk for nearly $600 million dollars, $588 million dollars. Are you comfortable with China buying such a significant New Zealand dairy asset?
Well, in phase two of the overseas investment rules that David Parker is leading, he is going out to consult whether there should be criteria dealing with a test of national significance, not necessarily for land, but for strategic industries.
Is that a ‘no’?
No, what I’m saying is that I don’t want to say anything that taints the ability of the Mongolian milk company to acquire whatever consents that they might have.
Well, one of your colleagues, Mark Patterson, has said that it’s an erosion of New Zealand control in our significant dairying assets. Do you agree with him?
Well, you’re talking to me as a Minister of the Crown. And I feel like I have an obligation—
Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate.
Yeah, fair point. But please listen with your taringas. I don’t want to taint whatever process the Mongolian milk company is going through. Mark is a dearly loved colleague of mine and I thoroughly understand his anxieties, but people are playing by the rules. And the rules at the moment allow them to proceed. I’m disappointed with the ineptitude and how absolutely useless the directors of New Zealand’s second-largest dairy co-op are, but that’s not the problem of the Mongolians. That’s the problem of how useless those directors are.
The $10 million that the Provincial Growth Fund loaned Westland Milk, was that an attempt to stave off an offshore purchase like this?
Well, I must be very honest, I had no idea that the directors had only one plan in mind, and they never ever shared that with me that they were preparing the company for sale via Macquaries, I think those are their advisors. So we put a caveat on that $10 million dollars in the event that there was a change of ownership, then the deal would vaporise.
Now it’s been suspended. And it’s not the only time you’ve offered a loan through the PGF. You also gave Oceania Marine in Whangarei a $4.8 million dollar loan. Is the Government becoming a lender of last resort?
Well, look, the policy underlying the Provincial Growth Fund is imaginative. It is bold. And, look, I accept that it inverts what used to happen. And I realise there are risks in doing that. But if there is a genuine case of market failure, then we have the criteria, endorsed by Cabinet, for the four ministers to proceed in that direction. Now, I know I’m attacked by the National Party for doing this, but I’m reminded of that great saying which I’ll adapt from my Grandmother, which is that if the Epsom cat wants to eat fine fish, then he’s got to get his feet wet.
OK, let’s move on to the capital gains tax, an announcement is going to be made very soon by your Government. Are you happy with where the Government has settled?
So, there’s various ways that I could be sacked. One of them that will definitely get me sacked by the end of this programme is if I offer any view whatsoever in terms of what lies exclusively in the province of my leader and Prime Minister.
Yes, but as the much-lauded, by your good self, champion of the regions, that includes farmers and regional businesses, can you give them assurance that they’re not going to be stung by a capital gains tax?
Well, in the near future, all I would say is that to the folk who have dirty boots and hard-working calloused hands, watch this space.
Sounds like New Zealand First got a win, and perhaps the tail is indeed wagging the dog. It was Winston Peter’s birthday this week, 74-years-old, what did you get him?
Every time I go overseas I bring a gift back for my rangatira, and that gift is the subject of great privacy between him and I. But we shared a day yesterday in Whangarei, and although the announcements were relatively modest, it’s always a pleasure to be with, yeah, the rangatira of New Zealand First.
What about the gift of succession? Who would win in a leadership fight between Shane Jones, Ron Mark and Fletcher Tabuteau, say?
Right, well, I don’t think we should contemplate a future at all without our leader, Winston Peters. And when I had the opportunity, Tova, to come back into politics, I wanted to demonstrate that the provinces would have a champion, and that champion doesn’t need to hanker after anything else.
Yeah, that’s not a no. Thank you very much for joining us, kia ora, Matua Shane.
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