Week in Politics: Regional fund could become election liability

6:11 pm on 8 February 2019

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - The Government could be heading for a $3 billion headache if it's Regional Development Fund doesn't deliver.

Shane Jones and Pita Tipene at the Ngāti Hine joint venture launch on May 31.

Regional Development Minister Shane Jones has been criticised for the $100 million already given to Maori landowners to help improve productivity, which has been described as a waste of money. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

It's risky in politics to promise anything that can be measured.

That's what caused so much trouble with KiwiBuild when targets for completing new homes were set - because opposition politicians can count.

This week the Government handed out more than $180 million from its Regional Development Fund.

There was $82 million for Maori and Pasifika programmes to encourage young people to train and get into work and $100 million to help Maori landowners make better use of their land.

National's Paul Goldsmith has been doing some measuring, and figured out that so far only $26.6 million of the $3 billion fund, or 3.4 per cent of it, had actually been paid out and 54 jobs created.

By his reckoning, that's $490,191 for each job.

Those figures have been rejected by the Government. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said $97 million had been invested in 37 projects.

Regional Development Minister Shane Jones, who hands out the money, said projects yet to start would create hundreds, if not many thousands, of new jobs.

He cited a single project, the Ruapehu ski lift, and said it alone had created 20 jobs.

The minister pledged that the fund would be fully allocated during this term of Parliament.

Mr Goldsmith's mathematics are an early example of the intense scrutiny of the fund that's going to go on until the next election.

There's the usual vast gulf between what the Government and the Opposition says, but as the dust settles reliable and detailed information will come out.

Mr Goldsmith says it's been very difficult to obtain information. The only way he can get it is through parliamentary questions, oral and written.

"We've been asking over a very long period of time - what has happened, how many jobs have actually been created," he said.

"We got all sorts of wild and wonderful answers in the House late last year, (Shane Jones) said 'oh, 9000 jobs' but that's just complete rubbish."

This fund is big, the Government is spending an awful lot of taxpayer money on projects and programmes designed to create jobs and develop the regions.

If it can't prove they are delivering, it will have some serious explaining to do because National will turn it into an election issue.

Opposition leader Simon Bridges has already described the $100 million that's being given to Maori landowners to help improve productivity as a waste of money.

"You're throwing it at a select few but you're not actually helping Maori," he told RNZ.

The latest announcements were timed to coincide with Waitangi Day, and Ms Ardern gave a lot more of her time to the commemorations at the historic site than her predecessors have.

Her care and attention at the Treaty grounds may have contributed to the unusually calm and pleasant atmosphere this year - there was only one protester.

In fact it was so peaceful that Labour MP Peeni Henare voiced mild concern that it might become a bit bland in the future.

A year ago, in her first Waitangi Day speech, Ms Ardern said her government would be held accountable for reducing inequality and improving Maori outcomes.

This year she used a similar theme, acknowledging that there was much more to be done and it would take more time. No one seemed concerned about that, possibly because they had heard it all before.

Back in Wellington, Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash wasn't having a peaceful time.

He was having to explain why there wasn't going to be an independent inquiry into the fisheries management system.

It will instead be carried out by government officials.

Mr Nash said an independent inquiry "simply isn't needed" and there were fully competent people within his ministry to conduct it.

Greenpeace executive director Russel Norman isn't buying that. He said the Government should have stuck to its election promise to hold an independent inquiry.

"Instead we've got one run by MPI itself, which of course has been captured by the fishing industry for many, many years," he said.

Mr Nash denies any capture of his ministry or officials.

The Government is also being criticised by conservationists for delaying the installation of cameras on fishing boats.

The previous government decided to go ahead with that, but Mr Nash says it's much more complicated than former ministers realised.

Is it really that complicated or does NZ First, which is close to the fishing industry, have a hand in this go slow approach?

National ended the week with a caucus retreat to tune up for Parliament's year, which starts on Tuesday, and work on policy planning.

Mr Bridges said a series of discussion documents would be released, the first later this month.

Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as political editor of NZPA and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.