On the face of it, the short and curious life of the Pacific Economic Development Agency Ltd is a perfect Auckland political story. It connects to power struggles in both local and national politics, and involves millions of dollars of taxpayers' money. And it is subject to an increasingly widespread perception of cronyism.
Radio New Zealand's Pacific correspondent, Richard Pamatatau, identified the story on Budget day last month, noting that $4.8 million in Pacific Island Affairs funding had gone to PEDA, a company "hardly known by anybody in the Pacific Island population" with "no real clear focus" and "no connections and no ability to engage with the population."
What he did know of PEDA was this:
"It's seen by many as a group set up by supporters of the national party to push a different kind of development agenda. It's also very strongly based in church philosophy. It's got big support from people like Michael Jones and Inga Va'aiga Tuigamala, who people say want to get into Parliament."
As National Party candidates, that is.
Pacific Eyewitness expressed a similar measure of surprise and concern:
An interesting find in this budget for Pacific: funding for a privately-owned business with two directors and one shareholder, Pacific Economic Development Agency Ltd, to spearhead Auckland's economic development for Pacific. We've never heard of this organisation which is a limited liability company. Was there a tender for this? Don't know. No information as yet on what exactly they will be doing. They better deliver better than what we presently receive so until then, we'll wait and see.
Radio New Zealand's reporters didn't sit on their hands. While the gallery was gorging on low-hanging fruit from the ministerial expenses files, RNZ's reporters were going through the documents they had received via an Official Information Act request.
They answered at least one of Pacific Eyewitness's questions. No, there had not been a tender for the money. It had simply been handed over. There wasn't a lot to report about what PEDA would do, however, as Pamatatau explained to Sean Plunket:
“…it’s a vague pitch(PEDA proposal), not a lot of detail in there. And this pitch, of course, at a time at a time when governments are looking at line by line expenditure in government dept and great scrutiny on any spending there. And there’s no analysis, no projections, nothing but the cost without numbers for every other part that they are seeking to offer.
The Ministry of Pacific Islands Affairs warned the Pacific Affairs Ministers of the risks and implications for the Minister, and the Government, in dealing with PEDA, says Radio New Zealand’s Pacific Affairs Correspondent Richard Pamatatau.
The Ministry also advises that PEDA doesn’t have a good record of working collaboratively. It accepts that the Finance Minister has allowed the money but the advice is to the Pacific Affairs Minister.
Bizarrely, the ministry didn't get to advise its minister until after the millions of dollars in funding had been announced in the Budget.
From there, it just got stranger. Pacific Affairs minister Georgina Te Heuheu went into a sort of meltdown in the House as she tried to avoid answering questions about who had negotiated with PEDA. And no wonder. Former PEDA director Mose Saitala, had already told Radio 531pi's non-English-language Tuvalu programme that English had been in discussion with the company "from the beginning". He had not, on the other hand, met with Te Heuheu.
Then English appeared to imply that his Pacific Affairs minister was either a liar or an idiot, claiming that the funding had never been granted to PEDA as poor Te Heuheu had said, but simply earmarked for general Pacific development.
In the event, as the
Herald on Sunday's editorial Herald's editorial ventured yesterday this morning:
It does not take too much to identify which of these two versions is correct.
Contrary to what the Finance Minister says, the Budget document specifically allocates the spending to Peda. It does not look like a negotiating position but an outcome. It is hard to escape the impression that in the interests of damage control, the Government is making a lame and obvious attempt to rewrite history.
I believe the shorter word for this is "lying".
The Standard has a more detailed look at English's curious claim, with scans from the actual Budget documents.
The curious thing here is why the New Zealand Herald's reporting of a story on its own damn doorstep has been so half-hearted, and why it was left to its slutty Sunday sibling to raise an editorial flag on it.
[ **Sorry folks, my mistake:** The Herald did finally get around to running an editorial this morning, and that was it.]
Why the Herald was so obsessed with Len Brown's credit card (another story it didn't actually break) that it was prepared to fake up a poll from some Your Views readers for its huge page 3 lead on Saturday – but not to go and do some actual reporting on a story that involved about seven thousand times more money than Brown is said to have misspent.
Because, extraordinarily, there's more. Radio 531pi host Efeso Collins was abruptly taken off air after refusing to stop asking questions about PEDA. The chair of the Pacific Radio Trust, which operates the station, is Tino Periera – the brother of PEDA co-founder and CEO Anthony (JR) Pereira.
Pacific Eyewitness noted some extraordinary behaviour at a public meeting, where Pereira declared "we have a government mandate to represent Pacific people in the SuperCity." This, it seems, was news to everyone.
And then yesterday, Pacific Eyewitness squared the circle by reporting that PEDA's principal partner, the so-called Pacific Islands Economic Forum is linked to Inga Tuigamala – he is the forum's secretary. Tuigamala has previously denied any connection with PEDA.
I mean, really, is there not enough to go on there? I've leaned heavily on the reporting of Radio New Zealand and Pacific Eyewitness for this post, and I think both of them have done a fine job. Quite why Auckland's daily paper – so fond at other times of sermonising about transparency and press freedom – is so ho-hum about it all I'm not sure. But for a paper that will present itself as the voice of the new, greater Auckland, it's frankly piss-poor.