Yes, let's keep an eye on Shane Jones.
The title of former Labour Party president Mike Williams' effusive tribute to Shane Jones – Shane Jones, one to watch – was spot on.
We need to watch him very closely indeed.
As a result of the coalition negotiations that led to NZ First choosing Labour in government he has been given $3 billion to spend through the Provincial Growth Fund.
It was always intended to be a political slush fund.
That large sum has first to be taken from New Zealanders through tax or borrowed, and so he has to demonstrate that he is delivering greater value than Kiwis would have if they had been able to hold on to that money themselves.
We certainly needed to watch closely when he said in Parliament last year that the fund had created 9000 jobs so far.
Closer examination reveals that so far, after countless press releases, photo opportunities in high vis jackets, shovels and tens of millions of dollars, the number of new jobs that can be attributed to the fund is 54.
That doesn't count the 118 bureaucrats hired to administer the fund.
So far, he's creating bureaucrats at twice the rate as new jobs are being created.
Let's hope more jobs come through for the regions. We genuinely wish the recipients of the funds all the best.
But we shouldn't forget that in the last two years of the National Government, New Zealand created 10,000 new jobs a month. Ten thousand a month! Many of them in the regions – which is why the number one issue in most regional towns is finding workers.
Those jobs were created because business owners felt confident to invest in new companies, new plant and machinery, to hire new people.
It's the confidence of investors, large and small, that drives regional development.
That confidence, sadly, has evaporated as a result of all the uncertainty around tax, labour laws and investment rules.
Instead of 10,000 new jobs a month across New Zealand, as it was in 2017, the latest three months averaged around 600.
Kiwis might think it harsh to call the Provincial Growth Fund a political slush fund.
But it was Shane Jones himself who explained the political nature of the fund.
When I asked him in Parliament early on last year why around 40 per cent of the fund to that point had been allocated to the Northland area, where he was well known to have political ambitions – his answer was 'to the victor goes the spoils'.
I couldn't believe it. He sat there in his high vis jacket in front of the cameras and smirked.
I asked the same question later and this time his answer was, 'to the winner goes the booty'.
When I asked a third time, he said, 'that was just the way the cookie crumbled'.
Is it any wonder that we worry that this large sum of money may be spent in a political way – to buy votes more than to buy jobs?
To be fair, about a quarter of the Provincial Growth Fund money is money that the previous National Government was already spending on regional development. Things like the Tourism Infrastructure Fund. Tourism generates a lot of revenue for the government through GST, but a lot of the infrastructure costs fall on local government. So it's right to have a way to send some of that money back.
We support that.
What we're more concerned about is money going to private companies or trusts in ways that are very hard to assess, such as the $6 million for a joint venture with Ngati Hine in the north to plant trees. We know from Ngati Hine's own words that the deal was better than anything they could have got from the private sector, but we don't know how much better.
Another example is a soft loan to Westland Milk – again we don't know the interest rate. If it was at a commercial rate, the subsidy is small; if it's zero per cent for 20 years the subsidy is huge.
Mr Jones refuses to tell us which.
Now I go to Hell Pizza's as much as the average bloke. I know that Envy is one of the deadly sins. I have to watch out that I don't fall into that trap, considering Mike Williams' lovely words about Shane Jones.
Any politician in New Zealand would give their right arm for such a hymn of praise to be written, let alone published, about them.
Mike Williams did note that he is the CEO of the Howard League. He probably also should have mentioned that the Howard League has been promised $10 million from Shane Jones' Provincial Growth Fund.
In fact, in terms of money actually received so far, according to the latest figures available, the Howard League is amongst the top 10 largest recipients of money from the fund.
The fact that Mike Williams and Shane Jones like each other is all very well, but we will continue to watch the operations of the Provincial Growth Fund closely to try to increase the chances that each dollar is spent wisely.
- Paul Goldsmith is National's spokesman for Regional Economic Development