Shane Jones’ attack on Fonterra chair, John Wilson, is part of a carefully calculated campaign by NZ First to boost its poll ratings and enhance its reputation as the scourge of corporate excess.
POLITIK has learned that Winston Peters was well aware that Jones was going to continue his attacks on corporates after he was admonished by Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, last March for heads to roll on the Air New Zealand board.
“Calling for the sacking of any board member is a step too far, and I have told him that,” she said.
Another senior and longstanding figure within the NZ First party told POLITIK that there was a concern that the party was losing touch with its “ordinary man” conservative, anti-corporate base.
With the spotlight about to fall on Peters as Acting Prime Minister, now is an obvious time for the party to seize as much publicity as it can to recover that base.
Fonterra has long been in NZ First’s sights.
Last year Peters criticised its Beingmate investment, and in September he attacked the “fat cat salary” of its CEO, Theo Spierings.
So given that there is currently shareholder unrest within the company, some of it based in Northland, it was inevitable that Peters and Jones would see the company as a suitable target for an anti-corporate crusade.
Jones has confirmed that he told a farmers’ breakfast at the National Field Days that “the chairman (John Wilson) should in quick order catch the next cab out of town.”
“I’ve been bloody disappointed that Fonterra, in my view, the leadership has not accepted that there’s a new Government and there is a new narrative, and I’ve had a gutsful of them believing they are bigger then what they really are,” he said.
Making one of her last public appearances before the birth of her baby, the Prime Minister, travelled to Hamilton for the field days where she had to face questions about Jones’ comments.
“The comments that Shane Jones made, he made clear he made them in a personal capacity. He did not make them as a minister, and it’s not Government policy, end of story,” Ardern said.
Jones, however, speaking after the Prime Minister made her comments, gave every indication that he was making his comments as a Minister.
“This is not a Government that is going to pander to the corporate culture that Fonterra at its highest level shows,” he said.
“We want accountability from New Zealand’s largest company, and it is not unreasonable for me, as the provincial champion, to challenge on behalf of the 365 people who left messages with me last night, the corporate culture of our largest company.”
If that was all, he had done then things might have settled down. There would be support for a challenge to Fonterra’s corporate culture from some of his Ministerial colleagues; David Parker for one and it would not be surprising if some National MPs also agreed with him.
But he also called for action to be taken against Fonterra during the forthcoming review of the Dairy Industry Restructuring Act.
“I have requested that the Minister of Agriculture, when he looks at the dairy restructuring, identify the issues and whether or not it’s time for us to look at a restructuring of Fonterra,” he said.
The Act was originally passed in 2001 when Fonterra was formed and was intended to prevent the Commerce Commission from challenging Fonterra’s dominant position within the dairy industry.
As a quid pro quo, Fonterra accepted a number of obligations including requiring it to collect any milk it was offered, to supply milk to competitors at a specific price.
Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor is now presiding over a review of the Act, but his press statement announcing that review gives no indication that any restructuring of Fonterra could be included.
POLITIK understands that Jones would like to see Fonterra broken up; possibly into two companies.
All O’Connor would say to POLITIK yesterday was that people would have their chance to comment on Fonterra during the review process.
O”Connor also confirmed that he phoned Wilson to assure him that Jones’ comments were not Government policy.
POLITIK understands that Ardern made a similar call.
Jones said last night he had not received a call or spoken to the Prime Minister about his comments.
Asked during Question Time by National’s Paul Goldsmith what the Prime Minister had said to him about his comments he said: “I don’t have much to do with the Prime Minister’s office; I have a great deal to do with the Deputy Prime Minister’s office.
“In terms of what remarks may have passed between my good self and the Prime Minister, they lie within the context of our relationship.
“But I can assure you, I stand by my remarks in terms of accountability that should be shown by a failing corporate governance culture at the highest levels of our largest company, and if a cab doesn’t suit then shanks’ pony is just as good.”
At that point, the deputy Prime Minister, soon to be acting Prime Minister, Winston Peters, rose and asked a question of Jones.
“ Is the Minister saying that if the farmers of this country have sadly and alas taken a haircut of over $700 million, no one in politics should respond to that?” he asked.
Jones: “I have been overwhelmed by the number of responses supporting my overdue criticism of so said company and its corporate culture.
“Many of the farmers have said to me that at long last we’ve got someone who will speak truth to corporate power and who will show that that particular corporate emperor definitely has no clothes.”
From New Zealand First’s point of view, the whole business could not have gone better.
But how long the Government can put up with a Cabinet Minister openly defying the Prime Minister remains to be seen.
And it will worry Ardern and her advisors that this is how Peters’ term as acting Prime Minister is beginning.
What they would prefer would be the low key and thoughtful approach he brought to an hour-long hearing of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee yesterday morning which was considering the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade estimates.
But Peters and NZ First have never been predictable.