From the moment the Government set up a regional development fund of $1 billion a year, its allocations required the closest possible scrutiny. National and Act, as well as news media, are watching it closely. The latest handout to raise concern is a grant of up to $4.6 million to a proposed cultural tourism centre in Northland.
Act's MP, David Seymour, says the minister of charge of the fund, Shane Jones, has breached rules governing conflict of interest and has asked the Auditor General to investigate it.
When the application was first received, in November 2017, Jones declared there could be a "perception" of conflict of interest and asked that decisions on the application be made by other ministers. But papers obtained under the Official Information Act suggest that he discussed the proposal in a meeting with Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis, Economic Development Minister David Parker, Transport Minister Phil Twyford and Finance Minister Grant Robertson before the grant was approved in February last year.
In particular, the notes show Jones reassured Robertson about its viability. The fact the Finance Minister needed that reassurance and that Jones was able to provide it, suggests Jones' role in the decision was crucial. The question of whether that breached principles of conflict of interest probably depends on Jones' connection to the applicants.
He declared a "perception" of a conflict, he said, because he had lobbied for the project, Manea Footprints of Kupe, when he was an Opposition MP and knew its main proponent, the late Whetu Naera. In 2014 the project had wanted to appoint him its chairman, an idea he calls "wishful thinking". He says he neither has nor ever has had any other interest in the project.
That assurance should settle the question of personal interest. Many, though, are more concerned about his and his party's political interest. He and his leader, Winston Peters, stood in Northland electorates at the last election and on current polling NZ First will need to win an electorate next time to remain in Parliament.
There is a perception Northland is doing very well out of the regional growth fund. In fact, as we reported on March 1, Northland is one of three regions dominating the grants. The others, Tairawhiti on the East Coast ($157 million), and the West Coast of the South Island ($138 million) exceed Northland's not quite $100 million so far.
Northland ought to be among the highest recipients. It has one of the worst unemployment rates in the country.
Jones of course does not discourage the perception in Northland that the region stands to gain from a Minister of Regional Economic Development with local knowledge and connections in the North. But if he stands to gain politically, he also stands to lose if too many projects are as poorly planned as the forestry venture that had to mulch pine seedlings last year.
The minister should be less concerned with "perception" than reality. If he has no real conflict of interest he should not declare one.