NZ First's Shane Jones has stepped into the middle of legal action between the NZ Transport Agency and Northland's biggest logging transport operator, even though he holds the portfolio of Associate Transport Minister.
Jones said he was speaking as the Regional Economic Development Minister when he expressed concern to the Herald about a case between the NZ Transport Agency and Semenoff Logging.
"I'm concerned about the economic implications flowing from issues between NZTA and Semenoff Logging," Jones said, following a High Court decision last Monday where the transporter won temporary suspension of a ban on its licence.
On March 15, NZTA revoked Semenoff's transport services licence over a range of safety issues, due to take effect on March 22.
But on March 20, the business of the ex-Whangarei mayor Stan Semenoff hit back and sought a temporary stay on that licence ban, although the case is yet to go to a full hearing.
Justice Mark Woolford said in his March 25 decision in the High Court at Auckland that the Whangarei company is "the largest logging haulage company in Northland ... responsible for 50 per cent of Northland's wood flow and log haulage."
Jones said his concern was over the agency's court action last month.
That saw Semenoff's licence revoked and followed two audits revealing 116 speed and traffic-related offences in four years, a high percentage of vehicles failing on brake system faults, driver fatigue and behaviour, breaches of work time and rest time rules and pervasive logbook issues.
Jones said: "Constitutionally, I must not comment on the High Court case. Both parties are entitled to state their views before the court. On the question of regional development, obviously, forestry is a key and jobs are incredibly important to our growth.
"I'm concerned about the future of 1000 jobs in Northland which could be on the line due to the High Court case. The High Court case doesn't prohibit the first citizen of the provinces from advocating on behalf of economic development.
"As associate transport minister, obviously safety issues are incredibly important. Now you can understand why I am a great enthusiast of upgrading the railway line for Northport," Jones said yesterday.
This is not the first time Jones has commented on businesses, having attacked The Warehouse as being anti-Kiwi, Air New Zealand over its fares and safety videos, dairy giant Fonterra over its governance, Greenpeace for tarnishing this country's fishing reputation to fundraise and Spark boss Simon Moutter over 5G.
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Paul Goldsmith, National's transport spokesman, said Jones should not be commenting on the NZTA case at all.
"Given the issue is soon to be in front of the courts, it is inappropriate for him to be commenting. This is basic stuff. It shows, once again, a lack of discipline from the minister.
"Mr Jones should stay out of it and let NZTA do its job. The impression left behind is that the minister thinks there should be one law for Northland and another for the rest of the country," Goldsmith said.
"Given the recent public interest around a perceived conflict of interest involving Mr Jones, you would think by now he would be well versed in the proper boundaries Cabinet ministers need to follow," Goldsmith said.
Meredith Connell managing partner Steve Haszard, who has been overseeing NZTA's regulatory compliance, said the entity has been strongly encouraging Stan Semenoff Logging since 2016 to get the company to lift its safety standards.
"The Transport Agency has given Stan Semenoff Logging every opportunity to provide evidence of improvement, but over the course of two audits and three years we have seen that this company is either unwilling or unable to comply with the necessary transport operator safety standards," Haszard said.
"The revocation is a safety decision, plain and simple. It's not just about the safety of Mr Semenoff's drivers, it's about the safety of all Northland's other road users," he said.
"As with every revocation we enforce, we know this will have an impact on those people employed by the company, and that is why we have made every effort to extensively engage with Mr Semenoff to avoid getting to this point."
In August 2018, the agency served a notice of proposal to Stan Semenoff in a final effort to get him to provide evidence he was now complying with the required safety standards, he said.
"It was ultimately up to Stan Semenoff Logging to avoid this situation by demonstrating safety improvement. We were given many assurances from his company that standards would be lifted, but in the end, they weren't," Haszard says.
Semenoff Logging had the right to appeal the decision to the District Court, Haszard said.