Ministers behaving badly and why they might just get away with it

2019-03-16 05:50:42

OPINION: The ego of Shane Jones seemingly knows no bounds.

And it's not just his declaration, this week, that he is to politics what Sonny Bill Williams is to rugby. Good grief! If I were allowed to use an eye-rolling emoji in my column, I would.

No, it's far more frightening than that.

Jones has enjoyed a certain amount of protection – by virtue of being in NZ First – for his various attacks on chief executives for a while now, so it was probably only a matter of time before he stepped well and truly over the line, thinking that he could.

It's becoming a real political problem for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

And yes, he's taken a shot at another chief executive this week, but that's far from his most egregious crime in the past seven days.

What is thoroughly chilling about Jones' behaviour is its recent escalation into using Parliamentary Privilege  against those who might challenge him.

It goes against democratic tenets of free speech, it is fully intended to stifle debate (incidentally the exact opposite of what Parliamentary Privilege is intended for).

Coupled with recent misdemeanours of his colleagues, it feeds into the pin-striped bully-boy image of NZ First and is neither kind nor transparent – two things the Government frequently likes to call itself.

That's likely to be what Jones is trying to achieve.

Jones began the week enraged at being questioned over his involvement in a decision to sign over $4 million of taxpayer funds to a Northland cultural tourism project, Manea, "Footprints of Kupe".

He had some close links with the project during the time he was out of Parliament, and proactively declared his conflict of interest when the project came up for a funding decision under the Provincial Growth Fund, which he largely administers.

Jones is not the only signing minister on decisions under $20m, and he did not sign off on this decision.

However, he remained in the room during the decision-making process, and seemingly participated by offering an assurance of governance, which may be perceived to have helped the funding application over the line.

His response to facing scrutiny over his level of involvement in a decision to give $4m of taxpayer funds to a project that was at one point claiming Jones to be its chair?

It was to threaten to use the legal protection of Parliament to make grossly defamatory statements about the respected journalist who uncovered the potential conflict.

Ardern publicly, and it's understood far more forcefully in private, warned Jones against following through with his threats. Indeed, when the time came, Jones had nothing.

On a different issue, he did use privilege to skate very close to a line Cabinet ministers usually dare not tread.

"I make a prediction: the Serious Fraud Office, once unwisely sicced​ by that side of the House on to our Leader, knows we will study every single step that they take, to ensure, because it's the National Party, it's not whitewashed," he said in Parliament's debating chamber.

While the integrity of a Serious Fraud Office Investigation is likely not so flimsy as to be swayed by a minister mouthing off in the House, those comments threaten to undermine the perception of its findings either way.

There is a very good reason the judiciary and law enforcement agencies are independent of government  – so as not to tempt slighted ministers to wield their power against those willing to scrutinise their decisions.

And trouble comes threes, so to round off Jones' week of outbursts, he added Spark boss Simon Moutter to his burn-book of chief executives. His anti-corporate schtick always plays well to regional New Zealand, but by now, is extremely predictable.

So much so, Moutter tweeted it as a badge of honour; a Jones outburst clearly no longer the knee-knocking riposte it once was.

But he's not the only NZ First minister to fall foul of what's typically considered professional conduct.

Ardern was also forced to speak with Veterans Minister Ron Mark, after video footage emerged of him seemingly lording accessing to Government funding over the heads of a charity organisation, if its members did not vote for NZ First.

Let's not forget the furore that surrounded former Minister for Community and Voluntary Sector Alfred Ngaro when he made similar remarks in a private National Party setting.

Former prime minister Bill English launched a full-scale investigation to check on Ngaro's involvement in any funding decisions. He apologised to the prime minister, he apologised to Cabinet, and he apologised to the public.

Former Labour leader Andrew Little called for his sacking, regardless.

Ardern's treatment of Mark has not come remotely close, but the problem may not necessarily be inaction. Rather, the inability to act.

One might be forgiven for forgetting that she was considering an upcoming Cabinet reshuffle – this would surely mean a fast track for demotion of one of her own ministers.

Except Jones and Mark clearly think they're untouchable.

They mostly are.

NZ First leader Winston Peters has been as defiant as his MPs, so they'll clearly face no consequence there.

And Ardern can only make changes to the Cabinet lineup as it pertains to NZ First in consultation with Peters. There's some speculation that the delay in announcing a reshuffle is that NZ First is pushing for more portfolios.

If the party pulls that off, it would surely send a message.

Ministers operate under the law, and NZ First is above it.

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