An unedifying political circus
The public last week had a couple of behind-the-scenes peeps at the political circus, and the sights weren’t pretty.
First, there was the the Audit Office report into the decisions made by Labour MP Shane Jones, when he was Associate Minister of Immigration.
The Auditor-General found no evidence that Jones’ decision to grant citizenship to the Labour Party’s millionaire donor William Liu against advice from his officials, had been due to ‘‘improper motive, collusion, or political interference’’ on anyone’s part – but the Auditor-General criticised ‘‘most of those involved’’ in the Liu decision. What the report revealed was a system in which wealthy applicants for citizenship could directly lobby ministers and in which ministers were busily lobbying each other. Jones’ colleague Dover Samuels, for instance, reportedly wrote three letters on Liu’s behalf.
The officials who advised that Liu failed the ‘‘good character’’ grounds for citizenship were sidelined, and Jones used his ministerial discretion to give the green light to Liu’s application.
Jones conceded last week he should have asked his officials for more information, had alienated them and had been over-hasty in reaching his decision.
Regardless, the Audit Office blamed the same officials for not giving more advice to a minister who, at the time, was plainly not interested in hearing it.
Jones is back on Labour’s front bench with his reputation apparently restored and with ministerial office in prospect again, should a Labour-led coalition win the next election.
If the Jones affair felt bad, the finger-pointing over the plunge into $389 million worth of debt by the state company Solid Energy was even more unsavoury.
At first, former chief executive Don Elder was absent from a parliamentary inquiry, despite remaining on full pay, courtesy of taxpayers, to whom he seemingly no longer felt accountable.
After Labour MP Clayton Cosgrove kicked up a media fuss about his absence, Elder eventually appeared before the parliamentary committee – but by then, the question of responsibility had become a hot potato busily being tossed between Solid Energy and the government.
Had Solid Energy reluctantly taken on more debt under pressure from a government greedy for the dividends that such expansion might deliver? Or, as the government intimated, had the energy company largely brought about its own demise via the likes of a $27 billion expansion plan that it briefly contemplated?
State-Owned Enterprises Minister Tony Ryall and Prime Minister John Key seemed to disagree about whether the company’s debt gearing had been, or hadn’t been, an important contributing factor to Solid Energy’s plight.
No-one, it seemed, was taking responsibility for the lack of a Plan B when the Chinese economy went into a well- flagged downturn, reducing its demand for coal and taking the coal price and Solid Energy’s profits down.
There has also been no assessment as to how Solid Energy’s decline will affect the expected returns (and already shaky economic rationale) involved in the plan to sell shares in the country’s energy assets.