National has raised concerns over the apparent rubber-stamping of projects being considered as a result of government coalition talks following revelations that millions of dollars could be spent on all-weather race tracks.
Radio NZ reported today that $30 million of Provincial Growth Fund money had been set aside for coalition government projects, including a Dunedin centre of digital excellence, a sports hub in Kaitaia and several all-weather race tracks.
National's economic development spokesman Paul Goldsmith has revealed papers released under the Official Information Act show an application to the Provincial Growth Fund's independent advisory panel for Te Hiku Sports Hub signed off with "the panel notes that the application for the PGF to fund the Te Hiku Sports Hubs has been agreed as part of a manifesto commitment and does not require formal advice from the panel to the Minister".
Muddying the waters further is the fact that the head of the independent advisory panel, Rodger Finlay, is a director of Thoroughbred Racing NZ, which has applied for Provincial Growth Fund money for the race tracks which it says will help support the industry and the wider regions.
"Revelations that the Provincial Growth Fund will fund all-weather tracks for the horse-racing industry, an uncosted plan already approved by Cabinet, show there are no limits for [Regional Economic Development Minister] Shane Jones' slush fund," Goldsmith said.
"Funding decisions should be open and rigorous. Instead, the process is opaque and murky so it's hard to disentangle the arguments. In this case, they're not even making an argument, they're just saying we're going to do it."
Nigel Bickle, head of the Provincial Development Unit, said the PGF had robust processes to assess the quality of all applications.
"The terms of reference for the Independent Advisory Panel clearly state that the panel will not give advice on manifesto commitments. However, projects that are to be funded through the $30 million contingency will still need to go through the PGF application process, before going back to ministers for consideration," Bickle said in a statement.
NZ Thoroughbred Racing chief executive Bernard Saundry told RNZ it was "fantastic that New Zealand First, through our Racing Minister Winston Peters, will be delivering on a promise he made before the election".
Saundry said 50,000 jobs were supported by the industry, which was worth $1.6 billion to the economy.
The industry was hoping for three new all-weather tracks, which cost about $10 million each.
"We're not expecting all the money. If we get a 50-50 deal with the Government, it shows we've both got aligned interests," Saundry said.
Jones told the Herald he and Peters would sit down once a report into the racing industry was released next week, but officials would ensure the process was robust.
John Messara's Report on the New Zealand Racing Industry will be released on August 30.
"The independent appraisal committee, chaired by Roger Finlay, might take a peek at it but this is something that has its roots in the coalition deliberations. I'm conscious that the chair, Mr Finlay, is associated with the racing industry. All potential conflicts of interest will be observed in the process of the board," Jones said.
Jones said the three projects were the only ones to come out of coalition negotiations and there would be no more.
"It's a smallish figure over the broad spread of projects and in no way does it represent a fatal blow to the robustness of the overarching kaupapa."