New Zealand First appears to be embroiled once again in a row over the influence its donors have over its policies.
Regional Development Minister Shane Jones, yesterday, used a speech in Parliament’s General debate to warn former Fonterra director, Mark Townshend, to keep his nose out of NZ First.
This seems to be part of a deliberate NZ First strategy to adopt what one of their MPs called a “more muscular” approach to politics at a time when Labour is under political siege.
The attack sits alongside the party’s objections to the Employment Relations Bill which Jones is now starting to talk about publicly.
Last June Jones criticised then Fonterra chair, John Wilson, and said he should step down.
And, in a comment which angered many in the farming sector, said he had suggested to Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor that it might be time to restructure the dairy co-op.
Former Fonterra director, Mark Townshend, picked up Jones’ comments last week in an interview with “Rural News”.
He said that Jones “bizarre outburst will have been fuelled from somewhere”.
“And it will be worth watching who funds political parties (donations) and what they might like to see for their own self-interest as Government legislators do the Dairy Industry Restructuring ARA review,” he said.
That presumably is a reference to the Talleys group who own the Open Country dairy company and who were donors to NZ First candidate at the 2017 election.
They donated $10,000 to Shane Jones and $2000 to Fletcher Tabuteau.
The party did not have to name any of the donors of its substantial donors because none gave over $15,000 according to the NZ First Electoral Commission return.
Jones said that from time to time he was challenged as to whether the decisions of the Provincial Growth Fund that were made had been made with the necessary probity.
“I think that’s a fair enough challenge, that the face of the Provincial Growth Fund needs to be able to withstand attacks from time to time, and criticism, in terms of stewardship,” he said.
Jones said Fonterra’s new CEO needed to be given an opportunity to correct things at the company.
“But there’s one thing that I will not tolerate,” he said.
“I will not tolerate anyone saying the following things about my good self: that my intervention in the Fonterra issues, according to Mr Mark Townshend, a former director of Fonterra, was driven by my donations.
“That is not only malignant; that is grossly untrue, and I say to Mr Townshend, a large shareholder at the Fonterra company if you want to come out into the public and doubt the integrity of our party, sure. Mr Townshend and his ilk may think that our small party, New Zealand First, is a rinky-dink outfit, but you, sir, are out of line.
“You are casting aspersions on the donors that I have listed.
“You are doubting the integrity of me and my party as we participate in the Dairy Industry Restructuring Act review, and that remark of yours cannot go unanswered.”
“Now, Fonterra is an important entity, but no one in Fonterra is bigger than Parliament. No one in Fonterra is bigger than the law.
Jones advised Townshend to “go back to Chile” and redeem his reputation there; a reference to the bashing to death of 6000 calves on farms owned by a company he chaired in 2014.
But Jones’ speech was about more than his wounded pride.
It had been discussed at the NZ First caucus, and leader Winston Peters had been briefed.
The speech is yet another example of New Zealand First flexing its political muscles as it exploits what appears to be a political management vacuum in the Beehive.
Meanwhile, the Government appears to be neither confirming nor denying the POLITIK report that NZst was seeking big changes to the Employment Relations Amendment Bill which emerged from a Select Committee on Monday.
NZ First MP Mark Patterson voted for the redrafted Bill in the Committee.
However, POLITIK understands that NZ First wants the right for provincial employers to opt out of collective agreements re-instated in the Bill.
But asked about this in Parliament by Opposition Leader, Simon Bridges, yesterday, the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “If I could reference a quote made by the Deputy Prime Minister when a journalist speculated in this regard—his response was they’d been interviewing their typewriter.”
Bridges: Was the Deputy Prime Minister correct yesterday when he stated that the Employment Relations Amendment Bill was a “work in progress”, and, if so, what changes to the bill is her Government considering?
Ardern: “As I have outlined many, many times before, we utilise the Cabinet process to agree everything that this Government declares and puts before this House.
Bridges: “It’s a simple question: are changes afoot to the Employment Relations Amendment Bill?”
Ardern: “My response is that Cabinet determines any changes to legislation.”
However, Shane Jones told NBR Radio that he believed there was room for the Government to change the Bill.
“I find myself as the provincial champion seeing the interests on both sides. I thoroughly understand where union advocates are coming from wanting to boost the living standards and the wages and general economic circumstances of the workforce,“he said.
“But having come, for example, myself from the fishing industry and with a son who is a builder and other kids who work more in the primary sector I do see the fears of provincial-based employers, apprehensive of being shoehorned into cost structures that their businesses can’t sustain,” he said..
Mr Jones says he is not involved in any negotiations within the Coalition about how the legislation could be changed to deal with some of the worries expressed by businesses.
But he points out that on another piece of legislation to stop foreigners buying residential property the government did make a change during the committee stages in Parliament to exempt apartments. It is possible therefore to amend the legislation even after it has been to a select committee.
“Governments have the ability to, as you say, to deal to these problems. That’s at a slightly higher pay grade than Matua Shane Jones, otherwise known as rangatira Winston Peters. He’s dealing with it.”
Meanwhile, the Combined Trade Unions have issued a statement saying that by attempting to backtrack on its promise to strengthen New Zealanders’ work rights New Zealand First is letting down “the very Kiwi battlers it claims to represent.”
CTU President Richard Wagstaff said the move would be a betrayal. “We’re incredibly disappointed by New Zealand First’s attempts to duck the commitment they made to strengthen workers rights.
“Their attempts to back out of their Cabinet agreement to support multi-employer collective agreements (MECAs) has come after an intensive push by big business lobbyists.
“New Zealand First claim that they are backing small business, but this is a big business issue.”
But for New Zealand First, it keeps their names in headlines; contrasts with Labour them as being pro-business at a time when business confidence is falling and overall displays what they themselves call their “more muscular” approach to politics.