Prime Minister Chris Hipkins announcing Michael Wood's resignation yesterday

It was a simple question.

Did the Prime Minister think Michael Wood had lied to him?

Chris Hipkins’ reply was revealing not for what it said but what it didn’t.

“Michael did not take the necessary steps to identify all of the shareholdings or the key holdings to be trusted to make sure that they were appropriately described and that any conflicts were appropriately managed,” he said.

“And over the last few weeks, continued to do that.”

That may have been the issue at the heart of the matter, but the big question was why did he continuously assure the Prime Minister that something was true when it turned out that patently it was not.

Hipkins dodged that.

It sounded in the Beehive Theatrette awfully like what he really wanted to say was “yes”.

But he stopped himself and instead tried to give Wood the benefit of the doubt.

To have accused Wood of lying would demand that Wood resign not just from Cabinet but Parliament as well.

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Even so, the Prime Minister sounded genuinely perplexed.

“This is still an issue that I still don’t quite understand,” he said.

“I believe Michael to be an honest and decent person who’s been a conscientious and hardworking minister, and he’s been a very good minister.

“I still don’t understand how after all of this period of time, over two years with the Cabinet Office asking him to attend to these cases, we’re still in this position now in the last few weeks, even the fact that more information has come to light as the weeks have unfolded, is still something that I do not understand.” 

So Hipkins has not accused Wood of lying but nor has he dismissed the possibility.

Nor has he entirely dismissed the possibility that Wood should retire from politics altogether.

“There are people who have made mistakes in the past who have gone on to have great political careers and a future,” he said.

“What Michael chooses to do is a question for him.” 

But then he said that Wood “clearly needed” to tidy up that part of his life that had caused his present predicament.

Hipkins appeared to suggest that this might be a challenge.

“I think one of the things that Michael will need to reflect on, particularly as he thinks about what his own future is, is that he will need to have a better explanation than the one he’s produced so far,” he said.

And as he has done on some previous occasions, Hipkins was not reluctant to point out the differences between his style as Prime Minister and that of his predecessor, Jacinda Ardern, when he responded to a question asking whether the previous Prime Minister’s government had turned a blind eye to conflicts of interest.

“The practices of the last five years have been the same as previous governments before that; I think they can be tightened up, and I’m taking steps to do that.”

POLITIK Michael Wood

Wood’s conflicts involved a shareholding in Chorus when as Minister of Immigration, he approved telecoms technicians going on the Green List and being involved in a Cabinet discussion to launch a Commerce Commission inquiry into banking when his trust held shares in the Commonwealth Bank (which owns the BNZ) worth “tens of thousands”.

He issued a statement yesterday afternoon after he had flown back to Auckland saying: “Over the past couple of weeks I have reviewed all of my financial interests in light of issues that were raised over my personal ownership of shares. 

“This has involved a detailed search through all of my records to ensure that all possible interests were identified.

“In the course of this I have identified that a Family Trust I am a part of also owns other shares that should have been identified to Cabinet Office.

“Similar to my ownership of personal shares, these were historic holdings from before I was a Trustee and I have paid limited attention to them.

“At all times I have provided information about shares in the Trust to the Cabinet Office that I have believed was correct, but in this case my understanding was incorrect.”

Wood’ reporting on what looks to have been a substantial portfolio of shares held by the JMFairey Trust (of which he was a trustee) appears to have been sloppy.

He reported that he had beneficial interests in and was a trustee of the trust along with another, the Michael Wood Family Trust, in his first return as an MP in 2017.

But he then omitted the JMFairey Trust altogether in 2018 and instead recorded that he was a trustee and beneficiary only of the Michael Wood Family Trust.

He reinstated the JMFairey Trust in 2019 and has continued to report that every year since, but he stopped reporting the Family Trust after 2020.

Clearly, his paper trail has left Hipkins nearly enough to be stunned.

“I’m very, very disappointed,” he said.

“I’ve accepted that  human beings make mistakes, but this is over two years, and even in the last few weeks, the amount of time it’s taken for him to fully identify any other relevant issues, again, is not acceptable.”

The political problem for Hipkins is that Opposition Leader. Christopher Luxon is trying to make the Prime Minister rather than Wood wear it.

POLITIK National Leader Christopher Luxon responding yesterday to reporters’ questions about Michael Wood

“He should have sacked him on day one, as we said; we’ve been really clear about that,” he said.

“Chris Hipkins;  he’s a weak leader who ends up just taking a last-minute response after he’s under pressure from the media.

“He’s not building a strong culture.

“He’s not setting clear expectations, and certainly his ministers aren’t listening to him.”

In Parliament, Luxon took up the theme of whether Wood had been lying to Hipkins.

“If his own Ministers don’t take him seriously enough to tell him the truth when he asked them, how on earth should New Zealanders take him seriously as Prime Minister?” he asked.

Hipkins has been stung by this episode.

Wood is a highly regarded figure within both the party and the caucus, helped by his appeal to the left of the party through his championing of fair pay agreements.

He came into Parliament in a by-election in 2016 after his mentor Phil Goff resigned to become Auckland Mayor.

Hipkins announced a series of moves to tighten up conflicts of interest that Ministers might have, including implementing an annual review interview with each Minister conducted by the Prime Minister.

He said he was seeking advice on the Australian Ministerial Code of Conduct, which requires that Ministers divest themselves of investments and other interests in any public or private company or business other than public superannuation funds or publicly listed managed funds or trust arrangements.

Luxon tentatively offered support.

“All of that seems quite reasonable, and I’m up for considering it all,” he said.

But then it was back to his rehearsed sound bites.

“But the bigger issue here is Chris Hipkins, in the last five months, has actually shown no leadership because he’s let this culture come by.”

It was also revealed yesterday who Hipkins decided to assign Wood’s portfolios to; Carmel Sepuloni took workplace relations and safety; Andrew Little, Immigration and David Parker took the politically sensitive transport portfolio.

They are three Ministers who Hipkins obviously trusts to be able to do the job.

Parker’s appointment may excite the critics of Auckland’s Light Rail project since he is widely believed to have been a critic of it within the Cabinet.

He wasn’t prepared to answer questions on that yesterday.

“I won’t get into the details of any project, but I will say that I would expect my focus in the coming months will be on urban issues in Auckland and Wellington, on cyclone recovery issues and perhaps wider road maintenance issues that we have in rural areas,” he said.

Hipkins leaves for China on Sunday, but while he is in the air on his way there, Luxon will be delivering his keynote address to the annual National Party conference.

Yesterday was not the end of the Wood affair; more likely, from a political perspective, really only the beginning.