Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Vector cheques powerful ploy just before the vote

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Voting papers have gone out to elect members of the AECT. Photo / Michael Craig
Voting papers have gone out to elect members of the AECT. Photo / Michael Craig

Evidence of what I regard as one of the country's most dodgy pieces of electoral behaviour landed in Auckland isthmus and Manukau letterboxes this week.

The people behind this breathtaking cynicism were the five incumbents on what's called the Auckland Energy Consumer Trust. Jenny Shipley, when Prime Minister, set it up after she abolished electricity boards. It owns $2 billion Vector power company shares. The trustees stand for election every three years. Their only job is to pay out Vector's dividends.

The incumbent trustees are all up for re-election. And they have rigged the game. Two weeks before ballot papers were sent out they posted a cheque for $320 to every household where a voter lives. The cash handout came to $100 million.

Even more blatantly, they then ran a mass advertising campaign promoting themselves as the people responsible for this largesse. They got the trust to pick up the entire bill as part of $1 million spent on getting the grants out there.

When questioned, they said they were bound by the trust deed which dictated the timing of the payout and it was an unfortunate coincidence. Really?

That line fell over when the New Zealand Herald's David Fisher, a former chief reporter on this paper, exposed that the trustees themselves took a case to court so they could choose the timing of the payout. And they won that right.

I'm sure that had the judge realised the trustees intended to send cheques to voters just days before they voted there would have been a different decision.

If you are curious why the incumbents would go so to such lengths to protect their jobs you need to understand that all these trustees have been on a cushy number for six or nine years. They collect $63,000 to $90,000 a year to attend the occasional meeting. This year's annual report was two pages long - twice as long as their previous report.

With all this extra time on their hands two of them get to appoint themselves to the Vector board to pick up another $100,000. Not a bad earner for a part-time job.

They've manipulated the system to keep their place at the trough by in effect getting the trust to pay for their election campaign. They send money to the electors just before the vote and then have the trust promote them as the givers. No challenger can beat that.

The cost of a campaign to 300,000 households is prohibitive. For example, both John Banks and Len Brown each had to stump up with close to $1 million for their mayoral campaigns. All the political parties, except National, raised less than $1 million for their national campaigns at the last election.

Could you imagine, two weeks before election day, John Key (or Helen Clark in 2008) sending a cheque to every voter from the public purse and then taking out taxpayer-funded full-page advertisements giving themselves and their party the credit?

That's what the politicians on the Auckland Energy Consumer Trust have done. Even the most ethically challenged politician would blush at the antics of the incumbents. They smugly assume they'll get away with it because most of us wouldn't have a clue how they've manipulated us.

When we got an unexpected cheque two weeks ago we would have been pleasantly surprised. We'd vaguely note the faces and names of the people who gave it to us. And low and behold a few days later we get a ballot with the same five people asking us for our vote so they can keep giving us money.

Only one in eight people voted last time. On this basis, the incumbents will be expecting to romp home. This is where you come in. In the ballot you will see just 12 candidates. It's a straight contest between the incumbents, under the banner Communities and Residents, and the challengers, the Your Power Team.

Whoever wins, you'll still get a cheque in the future.

If you haven't yet received voting papers, contact the returning office on 0800 922 822. This isn't about partisan politics.

Sometimes as citizens we must stand on principle. This is one of those times.

Vote all the incumbents out.

- Herald on Sunday

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