COMMENT:

Shane Jones is in dire need of what business psychologists call a "sweeper upper" — a trusted official who guards their minister's back and pulls a metaphorical choke chain when necessary to keep him in line.

Smart politicians — or business chiefs, for that matter — who know they have a tendency to over-reach frequently employ a trusted minder. Not simply an executive assistant (although smart EAs do often take this role), but someone who can navigate the shoals of politics and curb their minister's impulsive and untidy tendencies which expose them to unnecessary grief.

It would be difficult for the "first citizen of the provinces" to accept that.

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But for a Harvard-educated politician who has chaired the Fisheries Commission among other entities, and who knows the score on conflicts of interest, being lazy on process doesn't cut it.

The "conflicts of interest" furore over a $4.6 million grant for the Manea "Footprints of Kupe" project is yet another of those wakeup calls Jones really doesn't need.

He is getting a deserved hammering over his failure to fully recuse himself from ministerial discussions which took place before the final decision to make the $4.6m grant.

His slating of a male journalist as a "bunny boiler" makes him a buffoon. This tendency to purple prose is undermining his credibility.

The Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) is a "$3 billion over three years" commitment that New Zealand First secured as part of the 2017 coalition negotiations.

Cabinet has oversight of the PGF and makes the call on investments of $20m and more. But Regional Economic Development Ministers make the call on investments between $1m and $20m.

This provides an extraordinary amount of change for Cabinet Ministers to effectively play with.

There is a good case for more investment in the regions to boost growth and productivity.

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The Northland cultural project was one of the first to get signed off by Cabinet after the Coalition took power in late 2017.

Jones was sensible to declare an interest in the project with the Cabinet Office early, in November 2017, and indicated he would not be involved in any decision to grant funding to the project under the fund.

But he was unwise to stay in the room while PGF Ministers Grant Robertson, Phil Twyford and David Parker held discussions over the proposal to invest $4.6m in a project that Treasury had questioned.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment notes that Robertson raised concerns about the broader management and commercial operations of the Manea projects.

Jones provided a reassurance that the project had Far North Holdings (the commercial arm of the Far North District Council) involved in its governance structures and he was comfortable their presence would alleviate any concerns.

Robertson was comfortable to sign the briefing knowing this mitigation was in place.
Far North Holdings is chaired by Bill Birnie, an investment banker.

Birnie, who is managing director of Birnie Capital, has held a range of government appointments including chair of Sport NZ's audit, risk and finance committee, deputy chair of High Performance Sport NZ and deputy chair of the Film Commission.

Other board members include accountant Sarah Petersen, who chairs the Northland regional development agency Northland Inc; Ross Blackman, who was for a long time involved as business manager for NZ's America's Cup challenges; Northland farmer and businessman Kevin Baxter; and, former National Foreign Minister Murray McCully.
They are all experienced in governance.

Funding milestones have also been established.

The furore is bigger than Shane Jones.

It is also a wakeup call for Robertson, who as Finance Minister has his own reputation for probity to maintain. A reputation which will be challenged if the mishaps over the fund end up with it being tarred as nothing more than a "political slush fund".

The ministers surely knew Jones had declared an interest and should have excluded him from their discussions.

Fundamentally, there is a question of whether ministers should be involved at all in direct decisions in the $1m-$20m range.

The Westland Milk Products grant is a case in point.

Treasury also told the Government to defer a decision about lending to debt-laden Westland Milk Products after banks had turned it down.

But despite the advice, Jones and Robertson pushed ahead and signed off on the $9.9m loan.

This is not the only PGF investment to be questioned by Treasury.

So far that has not troubled ministers — but it should.

It is not "their" fund, after all.