Michael Wood was asked about six times by the Cabinet Office since the end of 2020 to sell his Auckland Airport shares that have led to him being temporarily stood down as Transport Minister, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins says.
In his post-Cabinet press conference, Hipkins expressed his disappointment that Wood hadn’t followed Hipkins’ directive to all ministers after sacked minister Stuart Nash’s Cabinet Manual breaches that they ensure all necessary actions or holdings were declared appropriately.
He also conceded that Wood’s explanation for why he hadn’t sold the shares - Wood claims there was an emailing error and his busy work schedule meant he didn’t follow it up - was not “adequate”.
Hipkins’ comments came alongside an announcement from Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall that all vaping devices sold in New Zealand from August this year will need to have removeable or replaceable batteries.
The Herald today revealed Wood owned about 1530 shares in the airport, worth about $13,000 at the current share price. He is now selling them.
Wood has owned the shares since he was a teenager, but only began declaring them in the MPs’ register of pecuniary interests - the public list of MPs’ financial interests - in January last year.
The opposition has argued there is a conflict of interest, given he owned the shares while he was the minister responsible for the aviation sector.
Hipkins said the Cabinet office interview process was thorough, going through new ministers’ assets and potential conflicts of interest. He said there would always be conflicts in a small country but it was about how well they were managed.
Hipkins said he wasn’t sure Wood had a good explanation why he had not already sold his shares, despite saying repeatedly that he would sell them.
Asked what he needed to do to return to the transport portfolio, Hipkins said the shares needed to be sold and his declarations needed to be amended. Hipkins said if nothing further arises through that process, it was likely Wood would return to the portfolio.
Wood’s involvement in any decisions relating to the airport would be checked but at this point, there had been no obvious conflicts. There was no suggestion Wood’s shareholding had had any impact on Government decisions around the airport, although Hipkins didn’t know whether Wood had recused himself from past Cabinet decisions relating to it.
Hipkins said he didn’t have the sense that Wood was keeping something from him and he understood the shares were held in a family trust.
There had been about six discussions between Wood and the Cabinet office about divesting his shares since the end of 2020, Hipkins said.
About 1pm today, Hipkins said he had told Wood this morning he would be stood down from the transport portfolio “while any remaining issues around his conflicts are appropriately resolved”.
“Michael has indicated to me his intention to sell the shares in Auckland International Airport as soon as possible. I believe that is the appropriate course of action,” Hipkins said.
“He has also indicated he will work through with the Registrar of Pecuniary Interests how best to resolve the issues around his past declarations.”
Kieran McAnulty will be the acting Transport Minister.
Hipkins later told media the key issue in deciding to stand Wood down was the fact while Wood had disclosed the shares to the Cabinet Office, he said the shares would be sold.
However, as a result of an error on Wood’s part, the shares were not sold for years after they were disclosed.
“One of the challenges is that the Cabinet Office had been advised by [Wood] on a number of occasions that he has divested himself of the shares, that clearly hasn’t happened. That is quite a material issue,” Hipkins said.
Hipkins hinted that there was a way back into the fold for Wood.
“I don’t think the transgression is one that is so significant that he should lose his job altogether, but clearly he does need to take the time to get it right,” he said.
Wood said he felt Hipkins’ decision was “the appropriate one”.
“I accept it with good grace, I made a mistake here, I accept that, that’s on me and the appropriate thing that I do now is to fix that.”
He said in the coming days he would be completing the sale of his airport shares, a process he had previously initiated but the shares had not been sold.
“So I started the process of selling the shares last year, basically came across a hitch, which is that I needed information back from the share register that didn’t arrive, I think because they had an old email address and, in the reality of the fairly busy life that I have, I didn’t get back to it.
“Now, that’s not an excuse, that’s the honest answer.”
Wood said he didn’t offer to stand down from the transport portfolio, saying he and Hipkins had had a “constructive discussion” during which the PM set out “clear expectations” about what Wood must do.
Wood said he was “enormously disappointed” to have to let go of the portfolio.
He was hopeful he would return as the Transport Minister after the shares were sold.
“I personally take matters of transparency and ethics, I feel them really deeply, they’re enormously important to give people confidence in the political process, so I feel annoyed with myself for having gotten these two things wrong, and I accept that I should put them right before I come back into the role as well.”
National leader Christopher Luxon said Wood’s position was becoming “pretty untenable”.
Luxon said Wood should have been suspended when Hipkins found out about the shares on Friday.
“I think he should have suspended him immediately at that point in time,” Luxon said.
“I think he should have spent the past three days finding out exactly what the situation is and coming with some very clear answers,” he said.
‘Too many young people are vaping’
Verrall, the Health Minister, has announced that all vaping devices sold in New Zealand from August this year will need to have removeable or replaceable batteries.
The move was intended to limit the sale of “cheap disposable vapes” that were popular with young people, Verrall said.
Also from August, “child safety mechanisms” will be required for vapes and enticing flavour names such as “cotton candy” and “strawberry jelly donut” would be prohibited.
New vape retailers will also no longer be able to operate within 300 metres of schools and marae.
From August, a lead-in period of three months for disposable vapes and six months for reusable vapes would be provided for the industry to make sure products were compliant with the law.
“Too many young people are vaping, which is why we’re making a number of moves to stop that happening,” Verrall said.
“We recognise we need to strike a balance between preventing young people from starting to vape, at the same time as having vapes available as a cessation tool for those who genuinely want to give up smoking.
“These new regulations build on protections the Labour Government introduced in 2020, including banning sales to under-18s and prohibiting vape advertising and sponsorship.”
She said plain packaging was considered at an early stage but had not been taken up. It was being discussed in Australia, Verrall conceded.
She referenced NZ’s ambitious smokefree goals and said it was important not to create barriers for people wanting to quit smoking, therefore they didn’t want to make accessing vapes on a prescription basis.
The Smokefree 2025 goal is about tobacco and while Verrall didn’t say vaping was good for you, she noted it was not as badas smoking.
Verrall believed there was a need for the Government to continually review its position on smoking and vaping, especially when it came to children.
Hipkins said the changes would be phased in over the next six months and would build on restrictions in 2020 around age restrictions and advertising.
He said a balance had to be struck, to make sure young people didn’t become hooked but also help adults transition from smoking.
Hipkins said 56,000 people had stopped smoking in the past year.
Verrall said she believed they were “incredibly impactful measures” being announced today, particularly the crackdown on disposable vapes.
Verrall hoped it would “stop and reverse” the trend of young people vaping. A recent study found 10 per cent of Year 10 students were vapers.
She said the tobacco industry was very litigious, meaning the Government had to go through a proper process to enforce these measures.