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New Zealand First's salvation could also be its demise

Shane Jones, far left, and Winston Peters: what time do the polls close? Photo/Getty Images

As Shane Jones doles out NZ First’s regional growth billions, danger lurks round the corner.

Slowly but increasingly surely the very thing that was supposed to be the salvation of New Zealand First is starting to look like it could sow the seeds of that party’s demise.

It is still early days for the humungous $3 billion-over-three-years pot of gold otherwise known as the provincial growth fund. But trouble lurks within what cautious politicians would regard as a veritable cauldron of witches’ brew.

It is the common complaint of minor parties that their much larger coalition partners unfairly claim the credit for things the former have actually brought about.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

NZ First need not worry about that when it comes to judging who is to be praised or blamed for the success or otherwise of the mega-fund. When it comes to picking economic winners without appearing to be picking winners, Labour simply does not want to know.

The risks are too big. It’s NZ First leader Winston Peters’ baby. Or, more accurately, the responsibility of Shane Jones in his capacity as Minister of Regional Economic Development.

The voters’ assessment of the fund as a success or failure may well make or break NZ First at the ballot box two years hence.

The party can probably count on Peters having a last hurrah and standing for Parliament one more time. The two previous times NZ First was party to government, however, voters biffed Peters and his colleagues out of the Beehive at the first opportunity.

NZ First’s current poor showing in the polls does not offer much optimism that the same fate does not await the party in 2020.

With the exception of Jones’ responsibilities, the ministerial portfolios held by NZ First offer precious few opportunities to generate electoral gain.

Ron Mark may go into raptures at securing the money to buy shiny new and hugely expensive maritime patrol aircraft for the Air Force. Few voters share his enthusiasm. And most of those would have worked out that the planes would have been bought regardless of who was the Defence Minister.

On current form, Tracey Martin may well do a good job as Minister for Children. However, it is a portfolio in which a thousand success stories are insufficient to blot out any single failure of care.

The title of Minister of Foreign Affairs confers prestige on the holder, but little else. New Zealand voters do not give a toss about foreign policy.

Peters’ spare-time job of Minister of Racing probably gives him more cachet in the provinces than his being Foreign Minister. 

Minister of Jokes

All that makes Jones a pivotal figure. But his penchant for political bluster sees him repeatedly being hoist with his own petard.

He is so full of self-praise that not so long ago he crowned himself the “provincial champion”and a “lion of the regions”. It was all so over-the-top that it looked like self-parody.

It is as if Jones is having a private joke. However, it looks very much like being at his own expense.

It will take just one project or business enterprise that has been funded under his auspices to fall over to taint the whole fund.

The risk of that happening is reduced by many of the 60-plus applications for funding that have received approval being limited to feasibility studies. That is as it should be. No project should receive further funding courtesy of taxpayers without its proponents first presenting a strong business case demonstrating its viability as a going concern.

Feasibility studies don’t win votes, however.

Jones will be facing ever-mounting pressure to deliver results as the electoral cycle progresses. The bureaucrats at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, who have oversight of the nuts-and-bolts operation of the fund, will feel that pressure, too.

It is in the nature of bureaucracies that they wish to please their political masters. That could see a relaxation of scrutiny of applications for what is free money. The ministry has already had a wake-up call after it belatedly discovered that the former managing director of a company seeking funding for a waste-to-energy plant to be built in Westport was the subject of a Serious Fraud Office investigation.

Even more mind-boggling – and something that so far appears to have gone unnoticed – is the forking out of $125,000 to establish a business case for the upgrade of the ports at Greymouth and Westport.

Barely six months have passed since the Buller District Council closed Westport’s harbour to foreign shipping on the not unreasonable grounds that it had been years since such a vessel had berthed at Westport and that there was no point in the council continuing to spend about $1 million a year on dredging the harbour and its entrance to cater for ships that never came.

Queue here for blank cheques

Such a “build it and they will come” mentality encourages the promoters of other crackpot projects to try their luck – projects like Ngāti Porou’s plan to build a wharf at Hicks Bay on the East Coast of the North Island.

Jones has not given his backing to the idea. But neither has he dismissed this slice of economic insanity out of hand. The minister is going to have to learn to say “no” and to say it very loudly so voters hear him.

The political risks that lurk in the fund do not reside so much in it being what the National Party slams as an “all-purpose political slush fund”. What angers voters is waste.

As retired United Future leader Peter Dunne, who had a brief stint in the portfolio, astutely observed, the attitude of local government to regional development policy is reminiscent of a cargo cult. Sooner or later a government will turn up that thinks there are jobs just waiting to be created and that writes itself a blank cheque to prove it.

That is a cue for the locals to pull out a wish-list of nice-to-haves that the government signs up to in the absence of any alternatives.

Something has emerged from left field, however, that has exposed the policy minefield into which politicians stumble when picking winners.

Reports that the Gloriavale religious sect was seeking funding for a new health-food company and factory would have horrified Jones. Would the sect use “volunteer” labour to undercut competitors? How could the factory be monitored to ensure it complied with workplace law?

The net result is that picking winners comes at a price, not just in dollars, but in punts that turn out to be unfair, unworkable and ultimately unacceptable.

This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.