Hard News by Russell Brown


Things worth knowing

Former cyclone Lusi wasn't the only wild, hot air over the weekend. That deafening sucking sound you heard was elements of the political right having a massive tantrum because the Judith Collins story was still a story.

The consensus theory was that this was the case because blah-blah-blah-leftist-media-plot-blah-blah-blah. But there is a simpler explanation. Collins' Oravida appointments were still a story because she misled the Prime Minister about them. If the original liaisons weren't a sacking offence, then her subsequent lack of candour about them must have at least raised the possibility.

But there's another reason. It's because this Oravida thing is really interesting. Successful governments always have wider power networks, and the minister's hesitancy with the truth has had the effect of exposing what seems to be a key network of the present one.

I hadn't realised that the Green Valley milk I like to buy locally is also supplied to Oravida and exported fresh to China, where it sells for $23 a bottle, or that the wider Oravida group sends meat, wines, seafood and fruit to China too. Or that it now owns the former Ports of Auckland building on Quay Street, which in the words of Tracy Watkins' story for the Star Times yesterday, "plays host to a clutch of National Party grandees and agencies tasked with opening doors in China."

There's nothing damning in Watkins' story, or, per se, in the fact National Party president Peter Goodfellow and Auckland central MP Nikki Kaye went along to see Judith Collins open the company's new Quay Street offices last year. But this is a company whose founder has worked for 10 years to cultivate links with the National Party, who occasionally plays golf with with the Prime Minister, a company which donated $56,000 to National before the last election and whose board, of course, includes Collins' husband.

Oravida seems a dynamic, innovative business. But it is as well that we know these things.

It's also a good thing that James Dann and Keith Ng put in a lot of work into laying out Environment Minister Amy Adams' farming and property interests in Canterbury, including a stake in Canterbury Plains Water, an irrigation project that is only possible because her government passed a bill nullifying ECan's democratic status in 2010. (Follow-up posts here and here.)

Adams has responded by declaring the investigation a "smear campaign" and "gutter tactics", but it poses what are surely reasonable questions in a democracy. If she didn't want to be asked them, she shouldn't have accepted the role of Minister of the Environment. In the event, it appears that Adams did behave appropriately in recusing herself from a Cabinet discussion about CPW.

But Rob Salmond has picked up the story and thinks that's not enough:

... it appears Adams has been a very active participant in government decisions that affect the profitability of CPW. For example, Adams fronted the government’s decision to extend the ECan commissioners’ terms to 2016. She even specifically praised the Commissioners’ changes to freshwater management rules, which have made approvals easier for CPW.

This is a clear conflict of interest. As Minister for the Environment, Amy Adams played a lead role in government decision making about who would regulate irrigation projects in Canterbury, including those run by CPW.  Adams’ role included briefing media on the decision she had been part of, and the reasons for it. Adams noted herself that she preferred the way the Commissioners were regulating the freshwater management sector, and cited that as a reason for keeping the ECan Commissioners on longer.

Amy Adams should not have had anything to do with the decision to extend the term of the ECan Commissioners, because that decision affects CPW’s profitability. But she did.

Amy Adams should not have had anything to do with advocating – publicly or privately – for a more permissive approval process around freshwater resources in Canterbury, because that approval process affects CPW’s profitability. But she did.

Let's be clear: both bloggers have (and declare) obvious political interests. Dann is a Labour Party activist and Salmond has links to the Labour leadership going back a decade or more.

But the questions would be relevant no matter who asked them. When a government takes an extraordinary step like this one did over ECan -- dismissing an elected council and appointing its own commissioners -- which manifestly benefits a particular group of businesses, it must expect this kind of scrutiny. However much she might wail about it, this is not a personal attack on her or her family, it's the kind of thing a free press is entitled to cover and the public is entitled to know about.

Both these controversies come back to dairy. And in the light of a survey finding that 70% of New Zealanders are concerned by environmental degradation at the hands of a booming dairy industry, it seems fair to conclude that they won't be the last stories generated down on the farm this election year.

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