Shane Jones is under pressure over a Provincial Growth Fund conflict of interest. He’s attempted to turn defence into attack with typical immodesty, even comparing himself to one of NZ’s top sportsmen and launching a bizarre ‘bunny boiler’ slur on a journalist, writes Guyon Espiner
Shane Jones likened himself to Sonny Bill Williams on Morning Report this week. Not in physique, mind you. There are limits, even to the immodesty of the self-proclaimed First Citizen of the Provinces, the wandering bard with the bag of pūtea, bestowing largesse on the forgotten hamlets of Aotearoa.
The comparison Jones was making was that he is to politics what Sonny Bill Williams is to rugby – someone with extraordinary gifts and talent. So much so that when he turns up somewhere people naturally expect he is going to run things.
“Everyone wants Sonny Bill in their team,” he said on Morning Report. It was his way of explaining why Manea Kupe Ltd, a Northland tourism venture, wrote to MBIE in 2015 saying Jones would be the chairman. A media report at the time, unchallenged by Jones, said the same thing.
No one would care about that – Jones was out of parliament at the time – except that now the trust has been given nearly $5 million from the Provincial Growth Fund that Jones presides over.
Having declared a conflict of interests, Jones then attended a ministerial meeting in February 2018 where the project was discussed. He says he was there only to provide “facts” but officials record that he went further than that, providing “assurances” about the trust’s governance structures, which allayed Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s concerns and allowed him to sign up to it.
While it’s probably a line call at that point – and the prime minister says Jones should have actually left the room – what follows seems to be pretty clear cut.
On 30 April – well after the 12 February ministerial meeting – Jones is asked a written question by National’s Paul Goldsmith, asking what meetings he’s had relating to the project.
Jones replies that because of his conflict of interests he’s left the decision to other ministers and “as such, I have had no formal meetings regarding the Manea Footprints of Kupe project”.
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.
Like Sonny Bill, the defensive game from Jones has been aggressive and entertaining, although he sometimes plays the man rather than the ball.
He labelled the Stuff journalist who broke the story, Hamish Rutherford, a “bunny boiler”. The Fatal Attraction reference – to a woman, or in this case a man, scorned – seems to relate to the fact that Rutheford stayed at his house a few years back and now has the temerity to write stories scrutinising the minister’s actions.
The bunny boiler barb raised some chuckles but the interview took a darker turn with Jones telling RNZ he would use parliamentary privilege to continue his attack on the journalist.
So where’s the ref or even the captain? The prime minister is largely on the sidelines watching Jones perform.
There was a gentle admonishment for Jones for not leaving the room when the project was discussed. But on Morning Report this week, Jacinda Ardern wasn’t prepared to say he had been misleading in answering questions. Jones now says he’ll take advice from parliament’s speaker Trevor Mallard as to whether he needs to correct the record.
Remember, Jones had to correct 20 answers to parliamentary written questions last year, some of which related to people he met with an interest in the PGF.
But Jones is not going to suffer the fate of Clare Curran. 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.
And who could blame him? Everyone wants Sonny Bill on their team and all the better if he can play without interference from a pesky referee.
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