John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Elder finds the perfect straight bat as Labour probes


You cannot have a witch trial without a wicked witch. More so when the person whose vilification had reached lynch-mob proportions turns out to be a veritable Prince Charming.

Don Elder did not get to where he got in his career without the ability to lay it on thick when plenty of convincing patter is called for.

Those who have lost their jobs at Solid Energy will accordingly view yesterday's expressions of sorrow for their plight from their former chief executive with some cynicism.

Such apologies from on high have become devalued by their frequency. And Elder said "sorry" no less than four times during his appearance in front of Parliament's commerce select committee.

But his regrets had the ring of the genuine. And for one very good reason.

The Basin Reserve was not the only place where a straight bat was being played in Wellington yesterday.

For the near two hours that he and Solid Energy's former chairman John Palmer were peppered with questions, Elder's responses were straight up and down. There was no artifice. There were no excuses. There was no hiding from the questions. There were no complaints.

He was as effusive in his pride at what he had achieved during his 12 years at the state-owned coal company as he was frank about the mistakes he had - in hindsight - made with the company's diversification programme.

He poured fresh light on why things had suddenly turned to custard at Solid Energy - a combination of a collapse in the price of coking coal, the high New Zealand dollar and the cost of having to go ever deeper in underground mines to reach fresh coal seams.

It was a "perfect storm". That is a perfect line with which to paint himself as victim, rather than villain, - one no doubt dreamed up by PR consultants and certain to be picked up by headline-writing sub-editors.

But things had anyway moved on by the time Elder and Palmer fronted. The politics is no longer about board and management responsibility for what went wrong at Solid Energy. It is now about Cabinet ministers instructing the firm to take on more debt to force it to lift its performance and thus its dividend yield to a cash-strapped National Government.

Labour was accordingly less interested in the finer detail of the failings of Solid Energy as quizzing the two men as to whether they had truly been victims - victims of undue pressure from Cabinet ministers.

- NZ Herald

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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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