COMMENT

In Parliament a couple of weeks ago, Regional Development Minister Shane Jones was asked about the impact of a funding grant in Kawerau.

He replied that prior to his announcement, the local mountain was covered in fog.

"And the mist and the fog cleared as a consequence of the announcement, and there was a blaze of certainty and clarity."

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This week the fog was descending on Jones after he was confronted with two blunders.

The first was that his office left about 60 meetings off a list of meetings he had attended. The mistake was blamed on a mishap by a junior staffer.

Then came news that $160,000 worth of pine seedlings had to be mulched instead of planted in Northland because the land had not been prepared.

The seedlings were part of a $32 million deal with the Ngati Hine Forestry Trust. About 1.2 million seedlings were bought, but only 200,000 could be planted because scrub had not been cleared.

The remainder were sent elsewhere – or mulched.

Ngati Hine's leader Pita Tipene valiantly took the blame for failing to ensure the land was ready.

But Jones only has himself to blame.

In his bid to spend all his money, he has berated officials for moving too slowly, as well as those in the regions who might have projects that would benefit from a grant.

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As a result, things are overlooked and those hoping for money are trying to move quickly lest they lose out completely.

This last week was a case of funding at haste, repenting at leisure.

The Ngati Hine signing had not been a low-key affair.

Jones and his leader Winston Peters traipsed up to join local Mayor John Carter and used spades with their names engraved on them for the first ceremonial plantings.

That spade is beginning to take on a more ominous overtone for Jones and his fund.

Jones' initial response was somewhat dismissive.

He said the wasted $160,000 was the equivalent of a backbench MP's annual salary, adding that was a place he hoped to never find himself again. He accused others of "catastrophising" it, dismissing the sum as insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

It is indeed paltry in the context of the Ngati Hine deal and the overall fund, but no politician should be glib about taxpayers' money.

It was all very entertaining, but did little to engender trust in Jones to take care of the purse for which he has oversight.

He did make a somewhat better fist of it all after that point, admitting things may have been rather rushed.

Having already trivialised it, he then insisted he was not trivialising such a waste of taxpayer coin and said he had demanded a full account from officials.

Jones has hardly made it easy for officials to avoid problems such as that which struck last week.

From day one he was bemoaning the "treacle-laden bureaucracy" and applying the spurs so he could spend all the money he had at his disposal.

It was inevitable some things would come a cropper due to a lack of due diligence.

Jones himself is not one for annoying details getting in the way of his grand plans.

That makes it even more important that his officials are. On occasion, they will be the only things between Jones and disaster.

Another of Jones' problems is that the problems the tree planting programme is supposed to fix keep disappearing on him – or were never there to begin with.

The fund was aimed at boosting the economy in the regions either through manufacturing or tourism – and providing jobs.

Much of his billion trees programme will be trees that would have been planted anyway.

Jones had also made much of the benefits of the tree planting programme in terms of jobs.

He had his "ne'er do well nephews" lazing about on the sofa in Northland who would be put to work.

He wanted to go so far as something akin to a planting for the dole programme – something Labour baulked at.

Yet it seems those nephews were in short supply when Ngati Hine came knocking.

The officials' paper observed there would not have been the labour required for planting the trees even had the land been cleared.

So Jones had to admit they would have looked at bringing in overseas labour – likely under the Pacific Island seasonal labour scheme to plant the trees rather than Jones' much talked about layabout nephews.

Jones and his fund were always going to be a tempting target for the Opposition.

His own nature has not helped matters in that regard.

His counterpart Paul Goldsmith pointed to his initial reaction to the seedlings debacle as a "cavalier" attitude – with some justification.

Thus far, about 95 projects have been funded to the tune of $400 million. Some are nationwide – such as $40 million to "improve digital connectivity".

Local projects range from $19.9 million for the Rotorua waterfront development to $70,000 for a manuka oil distillery in Northland.

There are high-speed gondolas and roading projects.

Between them, they are supposed to have created 3300 jobs.

But the failings of individual projects were always going to get more attention than the wider results the fund's grants might deliver.

Jones lived through the last Labour government and watched National make a mockery of various ill-conceived government-funded programmes, such as twilight golf.

Part of the reason it is a target is because the fund itself is one of the most blatant pork barrels ever rolled out in New Zealand.

Even Jones himself doesn't bother denying that.

It was criticised from Day One – not least because the initial tranche of funding seemed to be going toward projects in Jones' own backyard of Kerikeri.

Then came the waste-to-energy scheme on the West Coast, a scheme National had declined on its merits and because one of its principals was being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.

There remains $2.6 billion to be spent from the fund before 2020. Jones is not wasting time - in the past week alone, he has announced a further $94 million.

That two-year gap gives Jones time to woo the regions – but it is also time to judge whether funds have been well spent.

There may well be legacy projects there. But there will also inevitably be follies.