What on earth does the management at Mighty River Power
think it was doing, with its blanket refusal to answer
questions posed by the very parliamentary committee to which
those running the power generator are supposedly accountable?
Although it might seem relatively trivial in the grand scheme
of things, such obstructive behaviour must technically come
close to contempt of Parliament. It was certainly an affront,
if not an outright insult, to the commerce select committee
and thus to Parliament as a whole - and thus something at
which new Speaker David Carter might well choose to take a
closer look, and, if necessary, cut his teeth on.
Mighty River Power's unwillingness to respond to nearly 100
of the 133 written questions submitted by the commerce
committee was made on the flimsiest, silliest but also the
most dishonest of grounds. It is a terrible precedent which
other Crown entities will not take much persuading to follow
- especially given a second-term Government's growing
tendency to disregard the barking of public watchdogs of any
make or breed.
Mighty River Power has certainly made a mockery of
Parliament's annual financial review mechanism which requires
select committee assessment of whether Crown entities and
enterprises are performing as intended in supplying services
and managing their balance sheets and assets consistent with
their forecast performance.
If state-owned enterprises are going to flout this procedure
in such flagrant fashion, then everybody may as well pack up
and go home. The revelations at Thursday's meeting of the
commerce committee and the subsequent display of barely
disguised antagonism on the part of Mighty River Power's
representatives to the oral questions posed by Labour MPs,
said an awful lot about the company's respect for something,
which for all its toothlessness, is still one of the few
oversight mechanisms in place to assess the performance of
Much the same could be said for Solid Energy's cavalier
treatment of the same select committee later that morning.
Informing the committee as to exactly why or why not the
state coal company's former chief executive Don Elder would
be fronting to explain why Solid Energy is now tottering
under a crushing $389 million worth of debt should have
occurred as a simple matter of politeness. Given Mr Elder is
still on the Solid Energy payroll, in an advisory capacity,
his appearance before the committee would seem to be an
open-and-shut case. The company's new chief executive, Mark
Ford, says there is no problem.
But if there is no problem, why was Mr Elder not sitting
Mr Elder is not talking. But no doubt he feels he has little
to gain from being the victim of what increasingly looks like
an old-fashioned witch-hunt. Indeed for Labour, the pursuit
of Mr Elder may prove to be more productive politically than
what he might actually have to say to the committee.
If the major Opposition party was feeling trampled underfoot
in the public's rush to pre-register for a slice of Mighty
River Power, the seeming absence of any political guile on
the part of the latter's board and management plus the
similar unworldliness displayed by Solid Energy has enabled
Labour to turn the tables on National, if only briefly.
National MPs on the commerce committee now face a
damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don't scenario when it
comes to backing a likely Labour move to invoke a select
committee's rarely used right to subpoena a witness. Backing
any Labour-instigated motion would risk exposing Solid
Energy's shareholding ministers, Bill English and Tony Ryall,
to claims they failed to maintain proper oversight of the
state-owned enterprise's flawed diversification plans.
Not backing Labour would make them look like toadies and
prove what everyone knows - that Cabinet ministers call the
shots as to what happens at select committees. No prizes,
however, for guessing which way those MPs will jump.
Mr Ryall, the State Owned Enterprises Minister, could have
deservedly patted himself on the back earlier in the week for
a job well done as National surfed on a bow-wave of 200,000
pre-registrations for Mighty River Power shares. Some on the
Left tried to argue that the rush was a sign that those
opposed to partial asset sales were now willing to put their
money where their mouths were and buy shares to ensure the
company stays in majority New Zealand ownership. But money
talks. And the prospect of free money talks even louder. Not
signing up for shares in Mighty River Power is equivalent to
not signing up to KiwiSaver and missing out on the automatic
payment of $1000 by the Government. Mighty River Power's
share price is almost certain to rise once the company is
John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald