The Prime Minister wasted no time in standing down Michael Wood as Transport Minister yesterday after the Herald revealed he owned $13,000 of Auckland Airport shares that he was told to sell “half a dozen times” since 2020.
The Herald can also reveal Wood declined North Shore Aerodrome’s application for airport authority status while he owned shares in Auckland Airport, a potential competitor.
The aerodrome is in the Whangaparāoa electorate and its MP, National’s Mark Mitchell, said the situation appeared “dodgy” and that Wood’s actions were a sackable offence.
Chris Hipkins described Wood’s ownership of the stock while he was regulating the aviation industry as “not acceptable”.
“To be honest, I’m not really sure of [Wood’s] explanation there,” Hipkins said.
“I’m not sure that Michael himself even has a really good explanation for that - it would simply be one of those life admin tasks that he doesn’t seem to have gotten around to. I don’t think that that’s acceptable, having indicated back in 2020 that he was intending to dispose of them, he should have done that.”
The North Shore Aerodrome is based in Whangaparāoa, its MP Mark Mitchell told Mike Hosking Breakfast he would have acted much sooner than the Prime Minister did.
“When [Hipkins] found out about it over the Thursday, I would have been working over the weekend to have it resolved, to be clear about what happened and front-foot it on Monday,” he said.
“He should never have been sitting in front of my community making a big decision around our local airport when he held shares in the competition. You just cannot do that.”
Mitchell said Woods wasn’t machiavellian but noted he was one of the “more effective Labour ministers” on the bench and the situation appeared “dodgy”.
“You cannot have a Cabinet Minister misleading the Cabinet,” he said.
“I’m sorry, but it’s a huge privilege to be a minister of the Crown and there comes some big responsibilities with that, and if you fail there should be consequences.”
National Party leader Christopher Luxon told AM that the situation with Wood speaks to Hipkins’ “weak leadership”.
”He hasn’t got his team gripped up,” he said.
”The coalition of chaos just rolls on through, it’s another ministerial scandal. It’s happening at a great regularity.”
Luxon said it seemed that either Hipkins was not good at laying down the law with his team or that they were not following instructions and expectations very well.
”It speaks to me to a government that focuses on itself, it’s losing its plot and it’s out of touch with what matters most to New Zealanders,” he said.
Act Leader David Seymour said Wood should not be allowed to continue on as a minister.
“If Chris Hipkins keeps Michael Wood as a Minister he is telling every New Zealander, and the world, that the Government may be working for its public interest, or perhaps for its members’ private interests. Who would know?
“That’s why he can’t be reinstated as Minister of Transport. He cannot be a Minister at all. If Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ real problem is he has nobody capable of filling the role, then he should bring forward the election.”
The Herald can also reveal that Wood’s wife, Auckland councillor Julie Fairey, has been forced to correct a declaration of interest she filed to the council last October stating neither she nor her husband had a financial interest in any company or business, and neither of them had a beneficial interest in a trust.
This is incorrect, given Wood’s ownership of airport shares.
The shares are worth about $13,000 at today’s prices.
Wood’s decision about the North Shore Airport’s application was made in 2021 when he still held ministerial responsibility for aviation, which includes regulating airports.
Transport officials in March 2021 recommended the small Dairy Flat airfield get airport authority status, saying they “did not see evidence to suggest that the airport will not be able to satisfactorily carry out the responsibilities of an airport authority and therefore no reason why it should not be granted”.
Wood told the Herald the decision to decline the airport’s application “was made after carefully considering the overwhelmingly negative feedback from the community and advice from officials”.
“I have already acknowledged that this conflict was mismanaged, and [it’s] a mistake that I take full responsibility for,” Wood said.
The briefing said airport authority status would be a step towards building a longer runway at the North Shore airfield for “small regional turboprop aircraft to operate”, and help by “growing air connectivity” to regions such as Great Barrier Island, the Coromandel and the Far North.
There is no suggestion Wood acted inappropriately given his shareholding in Auckland Airport, which has an effective monopoly on flights from the region. Airport authority status is not required to operate an airport, but it does make it easier for them to grow.
North Shore Airport operates some commercial services despite lacking authority status, although the briefing said giving the airport authority status could allow larger planes and more services.
Most New Zealand airports have the status, according to the Ministry of Transport.
In a letter to the airport last year, Wood noted the Airports Authorities Act gives ministers discretion on whether or not to grant authority status, and allows them discretion on the criteria they use to make the final call.
National’s acting Auckland spokesman Paul Goldsmith said Wood should have recused himself from the North Shore decision.
“The first thing he should have done is sell the shares. If he didn’t sell the shares then he had to manage the conflict more effectively. By continuing [to make] decisions he failed on all counts,” Goldsmith said.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins would not give his view on whether Wood should have recused himself from the decision.
“As with all of these things, I want the facts before providing an opinion,” Hipkins said.
Hipkins said he would “double check” decisions that were made while Wood held aviation responsibilities but based on a “rapid check” so far, Wood had made no significant decisions relating to Auckland Airport when he was minister.
Wood’s wife, Auckland councillor Julie Fairey, yesterday updated her own interest register to reflect the fact her husband owned the shares.
Fairey said the shareholdings have never had a bearing on her position around the sale of Auckland Airport shares, which go to a vote tomorrow.
Unlike Stuart Nash and Meka Whaitiri, who have left Hipkins’ team of ministers this year, Wood was only stood down, rather than resigning or being sacked. He has kept his workplace relations and Minister for Auckland portfolios and been given a pathway back into the fold - if he cleans up the mess he has landed himself in.
Hipkins said Wood retained his confidence for now, describing the minister as “hardworking and conscientious”.
But Wood’s pathway to redemption does not change the narrative of ministerial mishaps engulfing Hipkins’ leadership. Hipkins has now stood down a minister every six and a half weeks on average since he took office.
If his predecessor, Jacinda Ardern faced a similar attrition rate, she would have churned through an entire Cabinet before finishing her second term.
National seized on Labour’s moment of weakness, publishing ads comparing the Wood, Jan Tinetti, Kiri Allan, Marama Davidson, and Stuart Nash scandals unfavourably with its own policy announcements.
National leader Christopher Luxon accused Hipkins of being “soft and weak”, saying Wood should have been stood down on Friday night when Hipkins became aware of the shares.
“I would have stood him down immediately,” Luxon said.
“We want a leader and a prime minister that’s going to do the right thing, not wait for media to actually make him do the right thing,” he said.
For Hipkins, the final straw was that Wood had told the Cabinet Office “on a number of occasions” he was selling the shares, but yet he never got around to actually getting rid of them.
The fact he repeatedly gave incorrect information to the Cabinet Office was “quite a material issue”, Hipkins said.
Wood said he had begun the process of selling the shares last year but this had stalled after he “came across a hitch”.
“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,” Wood said.
“Now, that’s not an excuse, that’s the honest answer,” he said.
Wood said he was stood down after meeting with Hipkins yesterday. Hipkins “set out his expectations” to Wood in the meeting, including that the shares be sold, and that Wood quickly correct previous editions of Parliament’s pecuniary interests register to identify that Wood has owned the shares the entire time he has been an MP.
The suspension came after the Herald revealed Wood had not corrected his pecuniary interest statements to reflect the fact he owned the shares. Wood had thought they were held in a trust and that he did not have to declare them.
Wood had declared the shares with the Cabinet Office, reflecting the fact they potentially conflicted with his transport portfolio, which had responsibility for the regulation of the aviation sector until that responsibility was shifted to an associate minister in June 2022.
Kieran McAnulty will take the transport portfolio on an acting basis in the interim. He may be forced to make the difficult decision of whether to hike fuel taxes when the next three-year transport budget comes into force on July 1 next year. A decision was due to be announced in the coming weeks.
If Wood’s stand-down period turns up further bad news, he could lose the portfolio completely, potentially putting the Auckland light rail project championed by Wood at risk.
Hipkins himself appears frustrated by the repeated mishaps of his ministers.
He said that he had reminded ministers to up their game with transparency and disclosure this year, but Wood clearly had not got the memo.
“Ministers are aware of my expectations. Michael clearly has not met them on this occasion,” he said.