Adam Bennett

Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

PR spin costs Solid Energy $48k

Lobbyists taught state coal miner how to thwart MPs', media questions, says Labour.

Solid Energy Chairman Mark Ford. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Solid Energy Chairman Mark Ford. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Well-connected Wellington lobbyists Saunders Unsworth worked with Solid Energy, Treasury and Cabinet Ministers to thwart MPs' and journalists' questions about the company's problems, Labour claims.

Advice provided by the firm's co-founder Mark Unsworth to Solid Energy executives included instructions to keep responses to MPs' questions short to avoid triggering further "unpleasant questions". The stricken state coal miner was also advised not to answer a journalist's questions about its financial position because speaking to one journalist on that topic meant "they will all want to talk to you".

Solid Energy chairman Mark Ford acknowledged earlier this year that Saunders Unsworth had been engaged to provide advice to the company about "protocol" during parliamentary committee hearings in February when the company was grilled on its near collapse because of falling coal prices and debts of $389 million.

However, emails obtained by Labour under the Official Information Act show Saunders Unsworth's work went well beyond that.

The emails show the firm's advice on how to deal with "problematic" Labour MPs Clayton Cosgrove and David Cunliffe and the media were shared not just with Solid Energy but with Treasury and Finance Minister Bill English and State Owned Enterprises Minister Tony Ryall's offices.

Solid Energy has said it paid $48,000 to Saunders Unsworth, which describes itself as "New Zealand's pre-eminent Government Relations and Lobbying Consultancy" for the work which was done between mid February-late March.

"This was a direct, concerted and co-ordinated effort between senior executives and ministers to thwart and hamper attempts by Members of Parliament and journalists to actually make these guys accountable and find the truth," Mr Cosgrove said yesterday.

"Instead of spending $48,000 dodging and weaving, the senior executives and ministers who had full knowledge of all this, should have just fronted up to the select committee and told the truth and been straight up with us and the people of New Zealand and given it to us warts and all."

Mr Ryall said $48,000 was "a lot of money to spend on advice about appearing before a select committee to answer the same old questions from Labour". "I wouldn't expect to see it happen again." Mr Unsworth yesterday said his firm's work for Solid Energy initially comprised of advice on select committee protocol but then "went quite a bit beyond that" to include advice on media relations, government relations and on a privileges committee complaint laid by Mr Cosgrove.

"It was half media and half dealing with the select committee and political issues around it. There was no attempt to hide anything or to prevent information coming out in any way."

He said it was unusual to be sharing advice to client Solid Energy with Treasury and Ministers.

"What made it different was the delicacy of what was going on with Solid Energy at the time. Throughout that whole period the ongoing dealings with the banks [was] to keep Solid Energy going on a day-to-day basis."

Advice from Saunders Unsworth

On answering MPs' questions during select committee hearings:
"Our advice is that your statements to the committee should be as short as possible. The longer you talk, the more likely it will be that you trigger a range of questions that will not be pleasant.

"We agree with all of your proposed lines apart from the 'We will not attempt to defend past decisions'."

On answering a journalist's questions about the company's financial position:
"The problem I see is that, if you talk to one journo on financials then the line that you 'can't speak in the middle of delicate negotiations with banks, etc, etc' becomes meaningless and they will all want to talk to you."

- NZ Herald

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