Shane Jones continues to skate on the thin ice of integrity. Yet he never seems to fall through. His latest controversy involved making public comments last week directed against the decision by one of his own government agencies to revoke the transport licence of a Northland logging truck company.
Jones may be the most problematic minister in the Labour-led Government. However, it's increasingly clear that he can get away with questionable behaviour, not just because Jacinda Ardern allows him to, but because the survival of New Zealand First - and therefore the current Government - is predicated on Jones playing to his support base.
Jones' Northland trucking controversy
Heather du Plessis-Allan wrote yesterday about the latest Jones scandal and what it means – see: A Jones by any other name. She sums up the scandal like this: "This time he's interceded with authorities on behalf of a trucking company owned by his mother's great-great-great-grandmother's great-great grandson. The trucking company racked up 116 speeding and traffic-related fines in four years. The authorities want the trucks off the road. Matua Shane – as he likes to call himself – had a word with those authorities."
So why is this a problem? Du Plessis-Allan says: "That should set off alarm bells because he's the Associate Transport Minister. But hey, that's not the hat he was wearing during the chat, he reckons. Nope. He interceded as the Champion of the Regions – as he likes to call himself. Because the Champion of the Regions was worried about the 1000 jobs that would be lost if the company folded."
The transport licence issue will be resolved in court. Last Monday the Whangārei company managed to get the High Court to impose a temporary suspension of the ban on their licence.
For a more detailed outline of the case, see Matthew Theunissen's very good article, Shane Jones denies conflict in comments on Semenoff Logging court case.
This reports how at one stage this week, Jones said "constitutionally I must not comment on the High Court case" but "he then proceeded to do just that". Jones also claimed that he hadn't meddled in the decision-making process to revoke the transport licence, but "confirmed he had briefly spoken to the chief executive of the Transport Agency about the case".
In terms of the "wearing different hats defence" that ministers often use, Theunissen says about Jones: "He also pointed out that the court case has not yet started, and said he had not been speaking as the Associate Transport Minister." Jones is quoted: "I said those remarks as the Minister of Regional Development… I have no delegations for safety as Associate Minister of Transport. I have never once discussed this issue with Julie Anne Genter, who is the safety transport minister."
The article also explains that Jones has been downplaying his personal connections with the owner of the trucking company – former Whangārei mayor Stan Semenoff, who has donated to Jones' election campaigns in the past, and who he is related to.
It therefore seems that Jones is in trouble on five possible charges of constitutional impropriety or conflicts of interest: 1) he's a Cabinet minister commenting publicly on a matter before the courts; 2) he's using his role as a transport minister to pressure officials in his own agency about an operational matter; 3) he's conflicted because he's intervening on behalf of an electorate he's trying to win as an election candidate; 4) he's standing up for someone who he's received financial support from; and 5) he's personally related to the owner of the company that he is championing.
In the face of such criticisms, Jones has not retreated from his outspoken remarks. In Parliament, he said "The principles of comity and privilege are important constitutional privileges that define our system, but there is no stone that should be put upon the tongue of the champion of the regions to talk about the implications of decisions that our Government may, from time to time, be held accountable for."
The problem, according to right-wing blogger David Farrar, is not just if Jones has stood up for the company publicly, but if he's been fighting behind the scenes: "If Jones has had discussions with any officials or contractors of NZTA regarding the decision, then he must be sacked. If he has privately tried to pressure NZTA with regards to an independent safety regulatory decision, just because it involves a major employer in a seat he wants to win – he must go" – see: Has Shane Jones been doing a Justin Trudeau?
Farrar also brings up the problem that this is all about road safety: "The Government says it wants safer roads yet their Associate Transport Minister is attacking a regulatory decision to do just that."
In terms of the safety record of the Semenoff Logging company, and why NZTA has revoked its licence, see Anne Gibson's informative article, Shane Jones wades in against NZTA over legal case against log trucker.
She reports that "Meredith Connell managing partner Steve Haszard, who has been overseeing NZTA's regulatory compliance, said the entity has been strongly encouraging Stan Semenoff Logging since 2016 to get the company to lift its safety standards."
Haszard, who is contracted to help NZTA, is quoted: "The Transport Agency has given Stan Semenoff Logging every opportunity to provide evidence of improvement, but over the course of two audits and three years we have seen that this company is either unwilling or unable to comply with the necessary transport operator safety standards… The revocation is a safety decision, plain and simple. It's not just about the safety of Mr Semenoff's drivers, it's about the safety of all Northland's other road users".
Interestingly, the trade union representing truck drivers, First Union, has been fully supportive of the Semenoff Logging company losing its license. Hamish Rutherford reports that First Union "says tough action by the Transport Agency is long overdue against Stan Semenoff Logging" – see: Shane Jones steps into case between company owned by 'my mother's cousin' and NZTA.
Of course the Northland logging truck controversy is only the latest in a long line of incidents that have raised questions about Shane Jones' integrity and style of operating in this current government. Very helpfully, Alex Braae has catalogued these controversies – see: A brave attempt to count every Shane Jones mini-scandal over 18 short months.
Braae comments: "With the possible exception of Phil Twyford, no minister has generated more headlines over the current government's term than Shane Jones. And a lot of them aren't good headlines at all. So how does he keep surviving? The charmed career of Shane Jones continued on breezily this week.
"Despite opening up yet another target around perceived conflicts of interest for the opposition to aim at, there has been no suggestion whatsoever that he could be on the verge of being sacked."
The apparent ability of Jones and his fellow NZ First Cabinet Ministers to get away with ethically questionable behaviour was discussed by Guyon Espiner, who raises examples of Jones providing misleading answers: "Such omissions can end ministerial careers. Ask Clare Curran, who had to exit Cabinet for failing to disclose her meetings. It matters because full disclosure about the spending of public money is at the core of a strong democracy" – see: Does everyone want Sonny Bill on their team?
Espiner uses sporting metaphors (after Jones painted himself as the Sonny Bill Williams of politics), and says "So where's the ref or even the captain? The Prime Minister is largely on the sidelines watching Jones perform… Jacinda Ardern wasn't prepared to say he had been misleading in answering questions… Jones doesn't get the red card. He's got the get out of jail free card. He's answerable only to Winston Peters. And Peters is enjoying the show."
Similarly, Mike Hosking comments that Jones' various indiscretions show that the Prime Minister is lacking the will to control her NZ First ministers: "There seems no indiscretion she would find remotely troubling. Under Ardern you can do what you like, because she's not into discipline. It will bite her eventually" – see: Shane Jones saga isn't sackable – but it's shonky, shady, loose and arrogant.
Writing last month about Jones' previous controversy, Hosking says "it's not sackable" but it "breaches all rules of good governance and common honesty. It's shonky, it's shady, it's loose, it's arrogant."
Ultimately it means that the Labour-led Government is losing any rights to claim the high moral ground of transparency and integrity: "If the Cabinet Manual is to be dismissed when it suits, don't have a manual. If indiscretions are to be explained away, don't then say you're wanting to be the most open, honest, and transparent government this country has ever seen. Because you can't be both."
Explaining the unpunished bad behaviour of Jones and NZ First
Hosking isn't the only one arguing that the Government is suffering due to Jones' antics. Herald political editor Audrey Young says that with Jones being out-of-control and undisciplined, the "message that sends the public is that coalition management is shambolic" – see: Shane Jones makes coalition management look shambolic.
But reporting on earlier bad behaviour, Young wonders if it's deliberate: "What is Shane Jones up to? Did he just have a bad week in which his good nature has been subsumed by irascibility and poor judgment? Or is he embarking on a deliberate mission for New Zealand First to become more assertive in the Coalition Government?"
It's the latter according, according to Heather du Plessis-Allan. In her column, she says: "The amazing thing is just how little Jones seems to care about having his integrity questioned. He just leans back, half closes his eyes, and chats about it like he's explaining the ins and outs of why he chose Quarter Tea for the bathroom walls. In fact, it's almost like Jonesy – as he likes to call himself – is deliberately breaking rules and forgoing principles."
She says it's all about attention-seeking: "In the same way that a junkie needs heroin, but also in order to keep his job. The party he belongs to is currently polling below the 5 per cent threshold. As in, half of that. They should be doing better."
This is where Matthew Hooton's recent column, Behaving badly is NZ First's best bet, comes in, in terms of understanding what's going on.
Hooton argues that although it might seem counterintuitive, bad behaviour is the party's best chance of pushing its support levels back up in time for next year's election: "NZ First knows it has no chance of reaching 5 per cent by loyally supporting the Government. Nor does it care if 90 per cent of voters think its behaviour is reprehensible. It needs to win the support of only 1 in 20 voters: anything more is pointless. Drawing on the Kiwi culture of larrikinism, bad behaviour is its best bet."
It's all about living up to the party's anti-establishment reputation, as well as differentiating themselves from Labour and the Greens: "Demonstrating that different rules apply to NZ First and making the nominal Prime Minister look weak is central to differentiating the party from its larger coalition partner ahead of 2020. The scandal then provided a pretext for Jones to go on the offensive. For NZ First, attacking journalists, threatening to smear named individuals under parliamentary privilege, making dark insinuations about the SFO and positioning big business as somehow treasonous have been core business for a quarter century. In everything he did this week, Jones had the full blessing of Peters and the NZ First caucus."
Furthermore, Hooton writes in another column that Jones is the only hope for the survival of New Zealand First, and that Peters needs to step down as leader and deputy prime minister for his protege to take over and re-launch the party – see: Move on Winston Peters, your time is up.
And Jones keeps getting away with his behaviour because Peters is clearly protecting him.
As Alex Braae writes, Jones' continued survival "might be because it remains politically impossible for the PM to get rid of him, whether she wanted to or not. NZ First is too powerful, and Shane Jones and Winston Peters are clearly very loyal to each other."
Finally, despite Shane Jones recently comparing himself to Sonny Bill Williams, there's an even more colourful comparison, and one that helps explain how Jones can get away with so much.
Liam Hehir points to one of the characters in the British sitcom The Office: "This man is full of himself, makes vulgar jokes and often blunders over the line of acceptable professional decorum. For all his awfulness, however, Finch never seems to get in trouble" – see: Sorry but Shane Jones is Chris Finch from The Office.