McCully and the Saudi sheep deal
TALKING POLITICS: There are always Ministers – Nick Smith, Hekia Parata and Murray McCully in this current government, Lianne Dalziel in the previous one – who, for whatever reason, seem to be more disasterprone than the rest of the team.
Last week, McCully was once again in the dogbox.
The origins of this latest crisis date back to National’s election victory in 2008, or even earlier. Prime Minister John Key had inherited from the Clark government the vexing problem of a well-connected Saudi sheikh.
The sheikh had become annoyed New Zealand had - for humanitarian reasons - stopped the live sheep trade he’d invested in, and which had been shaping up as a good little earner for him. What to do?
Unfortunately, the solution came to involve a virtual black ops exercise run by McCully, without many of his Cabinet colleagues having much idea about what he had in train. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, as Auditor-General Lynn Provost has found in her report into the Saudi sheep deal - plenty. There were ample signs of ‘‘unacceptable’’ behaviours – whereby the process of placating the Saudi sheikh became disguised as a contract for services rendered.
Provost found ‘‘significant shortcomings’’ in McCully’s briefing paper to Cabinet about his plans. Reportedly, Cabinet wasn’t told the sheikh’s firm would end up owning the initial $6 million package of our goods and services.
Nor was it given many details on how the deal’s $11.5 million overall cost was reached. The claim that the deal was necessary to avert an alleged $20-30 million legal action by the sheikh was never substantiated.
The deal with the sheikh was supposed to facilitate a free trade pact between this country and Saudi Arabia, but without any consideration of whether other obstacles might exist. Finally, our exports to the Saudis would allegedly double to $3 billion, but without any supportive analysis provided for that claim, either.
As we now know, the Saudi sheikh received a multi-million dollar payment and a ‘‘model’’ sheep farm gifted to him by the New Zealand taxpayer, and the sheep involved promptly died in the desert.
Ultimately, has the noble end - a trade deal sometime, maybe - justified the means used? Well, Provost has now asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to tot up the Saudi deal’s costs and benefits.
McCully appears to have survived this latest adventure. His officials have been asked to provide a rationale for what has happened on his watch..
Clearly, any problem where the solution is ‘Better Call Murray’ seems perilous, and could well inflict collateral career damage on any officials standing too close to this Minister when the explosion eventually, inevitably, occurs.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully.