John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Mighty River's trickle of answers insulting

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Board's arrogance sets dangerous precedent for other SOEs

Photo / Sarah Ivey
Photo / Sarah Ivey

What on Earth does the management at Mighty River Power think it was doing with its blanket refusal to answer questions posed by the very parliamentary committee to which those running the power generator are supposedly accountable?

Although it might seem relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things, such obstructive behaviour must technically come close to contempt of Parliament. It was certainly an affront, if not an outright insult, to the commerce select committee and thus to Parliament as a whole.

Mighty River Power's unwillingness to respond to nearly 100 of the 133 written questions submitted by the committee was rationalised on the flimsiest, most ridiculous but ultimately the most dishonest of grounds - a pedantic and childish interpretation of what are standard annual queries.

It is a terrible precedent, which other Crown entities will be tempted to follow.

In one stroke, Mighty River Power has made a mockery of Parliament's annual financial review mechanism, which requires select-committee assessment of whether Crown entities and enterprises are functioning in a fashion consistent with their forecast performance.

If state-owned enterprises are going to flout this procedure in such flagrant fashion, then everybody might as well pack up and go home for all the benefit that will come from an exercise which, as it stands, already stretches to little more than vague warnings or expressions of "concern" when a state-owned entity's practices or results do not come up to scratch.

The revelations at Thursday's meeting of the commerce committee and the thinly veiled arrogance displayed by Mighty River Power's representatives when faced with oral questions posed by Labour and Green MPs said an awful lot about the company's respect for something which, for all its toothlessness, is still one of the few oversight mechanisms assessing the performance of state-owned enterprises.

Much the same could be said for Solid Energy's cavalier treatment of the same select committee later that day.

Sorting out ahead of the meeting whether, where and when the state coal company's former chief executive Don Elder would be fronting to explain why Solid Energy is now tottering under a crushing $389 million worth of debt was a simple matter of politeness.

Given Elder is still on the Solid Energy payroll in an advisory capacity, his appearance before the committee would seem to have been an open-and-shut case.

The company's new chairman, Mark Ford, says there is no problem. But if there is no problem, why was Elder not sitting next to him at the committee's meeting? The answer? Ford had simply not asked Elder about fronting.

Elder has gone to ground. No doubt he feels he is fast becoming the victim of an old-fashioned witch-hunt.

Indeed for Labour, the continued pursuit of Elder may prove to be more productive politically than what he might actually tell the committee if and when he finally fronts.

If the major Opposition party was feeling trampled under foot in the public's rush to pre-register for a slice of Mighty River Power, the foot-in-mouth behaviour of the latter's board and management plus the similar unworldliness displayed by Solid Energy has enabled Labour to turn the tables on National.

The need for Elder to front and thereby bring this chapter to a close certainly dawned on the Prime Minister, who was monitoring developments from Chile.

John Key also realised National MPs on the commerce committee faced a damned-if-they-did, damned-if-they-didn't scenario if, as was likely, Labour moved to subpoena Elder to appear as a witness.

Backing any Labour motion to that effect could risk exposing Solid Energy's shareholding ministers, Bill English and Tony Ryall, to claims they failed to maintain proper oversight of the state-owned enterprise's flawed diversification plans.

Not backing Labour would have made the MPs look like toadies and prove what everyone knows - that Cabinet ministers call the shots as to what happens at select committees.

Key's statement that his office would not block any move to get Elder to front was testimony to that. The statement was also a pretty big hint to National MPs on the committee to invite Elder to front - a hint the committee's chairman, Jonathan Young, picked up yesterday by beginning moves to invite Elder to appear. Labour responded by immediately upping the ante and demanding a full select committee inquiry into Solid Energy. National, however, is unlikely to agree to something which would become a political circus and run for months.

Key was obviously worried the unnecessary displays of belligerence on the part of the two state-owned enterprises could take the political gloss off what looks like being a hugely successful share float. With National surfing a bow-wave of nearly 230,000 pre-registrations for Mighty River Power shares, the centre-left had been left floundering in its wake.

Money talks. And the prospect of free money talks even louder. Not buying shares in Mighty River Power is equivalent to not joining KiwiSaver and missing out on the automatic contribution of $1000 from the Government.

Such is the demand, Mighty River Power's share price is 99 per cent certain to rise once the company is listed, handing investors a guaranteed profit. Opposition parties seemed bereft of strategy to keep the anti-privatisation campaign alive.

Then Mighty River Power came to their rescue. The best that can be said in the company's defence is that the pending share float has made it paranoid of running foul of the heavy sanctions flowing from breaches of the Securities Act, which governs how such floats are handled.

To accept such an explanation (or excuse) would be to veer too far on the side of generosity, however. The company's chief executive, Doug Heffernan, seemed unable to explain why Mighty River Power had refused to answer the bulk of the written questions submitted by the select committee. The grounds for refusal was that they were not applicable to Mighty River Power as it was "not a (government) department, ministry or associated agency". Yet the very same Mighty River Power willingly provided proper answers to identical questions last year.

Not only that, the two other state generators up for partial privatisation - Meridian Energy and Genesis Energy - responded in detail to this year's questions.

Things are likely to be very different, however, when Mighty River Power is subject to parliamentary scrutiny next year. By then, the company's governance will fall under the purview of the Mixed Ownership Model Act. It will no longer be subject to the "social responsibility" provisions of the State Owned Enterprises Act, the Official Information Act or the Ombudsman Act. The company's board will have to operate in the interests of all shareholders - not just the Government as majority shareholder. It will be able to argue far more forcibly for not disclosing information for reasons of commercial sensitivity.

This will inevitably further dilute what little accountability remains in the company's relationship with Parliament - and thereby strengthen the arguments of those who say such entities should be completely privatised to save everyone the bother of pretending there is real accountability.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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