11 Mar 2019

Shane Jones denies he's conflicted in Northland Provincial Growth Fund decision

12:43 pm on 11 March 2019

The National Party is questioning Shane Jones' role in a decision to grant a group $4.6 million from the Provincial Growth Fund - calling it a conflict of interest.

Simon Bridges in the RNZ Auckland studio for an interview on Morning Report.

National Party leader Simon Bridges in RNZ's Auckland studio Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Before he returned to Parliament as a New Zealand First list MP in 2017, Mr Jones was involved in plans to build Manea Footprints of Kupe, a culture, heritage and education centre in Northland.

Mr Jones declared a conflict of interest in the project when he became a minister in November 2017.

Documents released under the Official Information Act show that in February 2018 during a meeting of ministers Grant Robertson raised concerns about the management and commercial operations of the project.

"Minister Jones provided reassurance that as the project has Far North Holdings Ltd, the commercial arm of the Far North District Council, involved in governance structures, he was comfortable their presence would alleviate any concerns on this issue," the documents state.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson then approved the grant, despite Treasury recommending it not go ahead.

In an answer to a Parliamentary question in April 2018, Mr Jones said he had attended no formal meetings about the project since becoming a minister.

Grant Robertson, Minister for Finance announces Budget 2018.

Grant Robertson Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Yesterday, Mr Jones said he gave only factual "publicly available" information at the February 2018 meeting and was not otherwise involved in the decision. He said he gave the same response in answer to a written question from ACT Party leader David Seymour in Parliament last year.

"My declaration [of a conflict of interest] was based on the facts that I had advocated for this project prior to becoming a minister and knew the late Whetu Naera, a Hokianga chief, who was a key proponent of the project," Mr Jones said.

"I neither had nor have any other interest in the project. My declaration related of a perception of a conflict of interest."

The trust behind the project today confirmed Mr Jones was never part of the project, though he was always supportive of it.

Manea Trust chair John Klaricich said Mr Jones was one of many politicians the trust lobbied over the years for support for the project and as a northern MP he openly backed it.

But he said Mr Jones was never a member of the trust, or practically involved in it.

"Shane had no involvement in the planning or anything to that effect," Mr Klaricich said.

"But whenever he was in the area we took the opportunity canvas our cause with [him]."

Mr Seymour has called for the Auditor-General to investigate, and for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to sack Mr Jones.

Ms Ardern said Mr Jones has managed his conflict of interest correctly and has "no cause to sack Minister Jones".

Jones' behaviour 'cavalier' - Simon Bridges

National Party leader Simon Bridges told Morning Report Mr Jones' behaviour was "serious and it's wrong".

"As a minister for several years [I've] never seen anything remotely approaching this sort of cavalier behaviour.

"He's donkey-deep in a conflict ... he shouldn't have been in the room, he certainly shouldn't have been speaking ... both of those are egregious."

He said it was another example from the government of its "lack of radar ... on issues of probity and process", citing Sir Michael Cullen continuing to be paid for work defending the Tax Working Group's report in the media after the group had officially been wound up, and links between deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and deputy Police Commissioner Wally Haumaha.

"We live in New Zealand, not some third-world third-rate country, probity matters, this is serious and wrong and it should not be swept under the carpet."

Shane Jones responds

New Zealand First MP Shane Jones answering media questions

Shane Jones Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Mr Jones has downplayed his involvement with the project.

He told Morning Report he had met with Mr Naera once about four or five years ago.

After that it had been communicated to the government - he did not know by whom - that he was to be the chair of the trust that would drive the project forward.

"I've never been the chair of a trust, and I would say that just because I turn up to a meeting and make a positive impact in people - after all, everyone wants Sonny Bill in their team - that doesn't mean I was the chairman, a director.

"It means that I was at a random meeting five years ago."

Mr Jones said he had no role in the project being approved and the "whole story is a beat up".

Probably not appropriate for Jones to have spoken in meeting - Geddis

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis told Morning Report the cabinet manual provided guidance for managing conflicts of interest, with the appropriate actions depending on how close to a project a minister was.

"And essentially the greater the conflict the more care you should take and the less you should have to do with an issue.

Professor Andrew Geddis of Otago University's Law School.

Andrew Geddis. Photo: Supplied: Otago University

"So if it really is that he only had a meeting five years ago and happens to know one of the people behind this who's now passed, that's a pretty low-level conflict.

"If it was that he was in line to be chair for this and he was really deeply involved in having it set up and having a real, [not] a financial stake but kind of a personal mana stake in it, well that's a much more serious conflict and greater steps should have been taken."

Dr Geddis said during the meeting of ministers it appeared a question arose about whether the project would have proper governance.

He said that it looked like Mr Jones had spoken up and said because the Northland District Council was involved it would be fine.

"On one level that's just providing facts, if that information was already in the application he's just saying 'you can see the facts'.

"But when he's there on a project that he's brought forward and wants to have put in place, and is then saying 'there is no problem with the governance of this' it starts to shade over into what looks like advocacy.

"And that probably wasn't appropriate given the fact he declared a conflict."

Dr Geddis said a better course of action from Mr Jones would have been to allow officials to answer any questions.

He said the point of the cabinet manual was so the public could trust decisions being made by ministers were for the public good rather than the private satisfaction of any one MP.