Mr Fix-it has become Mr Fudge-it. It was National's good
fortune this week that the Minister of Economic Development
also happens to be National's unofficial Minister of Damage
Even so, Steven Joyce was forced to deploy copious amounts of
political spin to try to neuter the report by deputy
auditor-general Phillippa Smith on how proposals for an
international convention centre in Auckland were sought and
assessed by his ministry.
For the report reveals that officials bent over backwards to
help SkyCity improve its bid to the clear disadvantage of
four other consortiums also out secure the rights to build
the estimated $350 million complex. The obvious question is
While such political dynamite lay waiting in the body of the
report, the document lacked for recommendations to which
National would have been required to respond.
This helped Mr Joyce in his assiduous efforts to downplay the
report's significance. Prime Minister John Key tried to do
the same before its release. But that might have backfired,
as the report's significance was a lot larger than he was
suggesting it was.
The next time he says he is not losing any sleep over
something, no-one us going to believe him. Mr Joyce has
played a more clever, if more cynical game. He has been
highly selective in emphasising some facets of the report
ahead of others. He has feigned ignorance of those elements
that don't suit his case; he has deliberately sown confusion
as to what the report actually says.
Mr Joyce has gone out of his way to avoid even acknowledging,
let alone accepting, some of Ms Smith's criticisms,
particularly those concerning the lack of fairness and
transparency in the crucial ''expression of interest'' phase
of the selection process.
This was vividly illustrated in Parliament on Thursday
afternoon when Mr Joyce exasperated Russel Norman by accusing
the Greens' co-leader of putting up straw men by mentioning
that of the five options put up by the various would-be
bidders, only SkyCity had been aware that the Government was
unwilling to commit any money to the project by way of
Mr Joyce said he had not seen any such suggestion, prompting
Dr Norman to ask if Ms Smith had been creating a straw man
when she had said ''one potential submitter [SkyCity] had a
clearer understanding of the actual position on a critical
issue and that critical issue was the issue of whether the
Government was going to provide any funding for capital
Mr Joyce suddenly recovered his memory, saying while Ms Smith
night have said that was a flaw in the process, she had also
declared it might not have had significant consequences.
This kind of game-playing is unworthy of someone of Mr
Joyce's intelligence and stature. But it indicates the extent
to which the report had National on the defensive.
Rather than treating the public's watchdog on the spending of
public money with respect and - if it was not too late to do
so - take some remedial action, Mr Joyce has treated an
officer of Parliament almost with disdain. That is behaviour
which is constitutionally unacceptable coming from a Cabinet
minister, especially given the lack of curbs on ministerial
power in the New Zealand political system.
That leaves the question: why were officials so helpful
tailoring SkyCity's bid to have the best chance of success.
The answer as far as Opposition parties are concerned resides
within National's ''cronyism'' - a word that Labour, Green
and NZ First MPs have been exercising their larynxes with
this week under parliamentary privilege.
Ms Smith's report mentions a host of meetings and dinners
variously involving SkyCity executives and board members, Mr
Key, his chief of staff and other Cabinet ministers and their
Such were the number of such contacts that Gerry Brownlee -
according to the report - and obviously sensing the risks,
declared at one point that ''too many people are talking to
Opposition parties argue Ms Smith's report shows officials
were simply doing what they thought their political masters
expected of them.
Intentionally or unintentionally, Mr Key had given
indications - his ambiguous briefing note comment about
''closing off the SkyCity angle'' being the most obvious -
that he wanted SkyCity on board . The officials duly
It must be stressed that there is no evidence of such
political interference. Proper procedure is vital, however.
As Ms Smith's report notes, proper procedures provide
transparency and fairness and avoid allegations of
favouritism. In contrast, the Ministry of Economic
Development was lax in its planning on how to handle what
should have been a normal competitive tender. The absence of
such was blamed in retrospect on the ''unique'' nature of the
Ms Smith disappointed Opposition parties by not recommending
that negotiations between the Government and SkyCity be
halted for good and everyone go back to square one and run a
fair and transparent tender. Even if she had, it is hard to
see National agreeing, however. The convention centre has
become one measure of Mr Key's and National's capacity to get
things done. If a further halt was called now, little
progress would have been made before next year's election.
If it is any consolation for National, it has been a hectic
week in politics. There have been announcements covering
Christchurch schools, cigarette packaging, welfare fraud and
Solid Energy. The impact of the SkyCity report in voters'
minds may accordingly be much lower. The Opposition may have
to rethink how much time and resources it continues to devote
to pillorying National with it.
John Armstrong is the political correspondent for The New