Bryce Edwards: Populist Shane Jones Vs Corporate Air NZ

Bryce Edwards: Populist Shane Jones Vs Corporate Air NZ

Shane Jones is just what New Zealand First needs at the moment – a polarising campaigner who can show his party is in touch with those parts of New Zealand not well served by corporates such as Air New Zealand. His campaign against the national carrier is straight out of the “populist playbook”, in which you identify an issue on which the public is hurting, a target for blame, and you colourfully go full blast on the issue, with little regard to propriety or political etiquette.

Audrey Young writes that Jones “is fast becoming the primary branding agent for New Zealand First”, and in “a single day he probably got the party back to 5 per cent and lifted his brand as a champion for the regions” – see: Air NZ attack scores bullseye for brand Jones.

She says Jones has learned from mentor Winston Peters that it’s best to personalise your complaint: “it is not enough to condemn institutions for their decisions but to imbue them with a malign intent or neglect, or venal individuals, or to paint them as elites who care not one jot for ordinary folk.”

The popular success of the campaign is also discussed by Tracy Watkins, who says Jones appears to be immune to the usual “bureaucratic capture” which neuters new ministers – see: Barack Obama’s NZ trip may have backfired for airline Pause.

Jones’ populist campaign was timed perfectly, given that Barack Obama was being hosted by the airline in an extravagant corporate visit: “The contrast between the glossy publicity shots and the airline’s cutbacks in regional New Zealand – ironically, including Northland, where Obama was flown by helicopter for his golf round – was stark. Jones’ assault on the airline for corporate arrogance and abandoning the ‘real’ New Zealand couldn’t have been timed better.”

The result has been a storm of publicity, and a chorus of support too big to be ignored. Perhaps the most surprising backing came from libertarian rightwing columnist Damien Grant, who wrote yesterday that “Jones’ chastising the current board for failing to meet the implicit obligation of servicing the economic needs of the wider economy is historically and economically sound. The person who is out of step is Tony Carter, the current chair” – see: Shane Jones right to clip wings of Air NZ board.

Grant, who is an expert in company law, argues that the idea of Air New Zealand as an independent company that has “an arm’s length shareholder dispassionately waiting for its dividend cheque” is nonsense. Instead, he points out that the whole existence of the airline is based on the state’s continued protection of it, and that it therefore “exists to help build the local economy.” He advises Jones to ignore the conservative critics.

The Dominion Post published an equally enthusiastic editorial, which also points out the airline’s debt to New Zealand for its bailout in 2001: “Jones is right to highlight that cutbacks in flights and services run counter to regional development – his job – and represent a sorry trend. He’s right to suggest, albeit forcefully, that Air NZ should consider its role and impact in all of New Zealand, not just the most accessible and profitable bits. And also the weight of any possible ‘debt’ owed to a nation that bailed the company out of trouble and still owns a majority shareholding. He’s right to be a voice and an advocate for a large part of the country that often struggles for traction inside the Beltway” – see: Jones doing his job – advocating for regions.

For the Dominion Post, it doesn’t matter so much that Jones is technically in the wrong in attempting to push around an independent company that is only part-owned by the state. The newspaper salutes him for tackling an issue that other politicians ignore: “Jones has again inspired worthy debate, and debate inspires and invigorates a robust democracy.”

Jones’ message will resonate strongly in the provinces, and many in the regions will be cheering him on. Some mayors are already expressing their support – see, for example, RNZ’s Regional mayors support Shane Jones’ Air NZ callout.

Former Northland mayor Wayne Brown points out that rural New Zealanders “coughed up” their share of taxes in 2001 to help bailout the airline: “Those people all get called on to tip their tax in when Air New Zealand gets into trouble, which they do occasionally and will do again… If they’re going to be backed up by the New Zealand public they have an obligation to serve the New Zealand public” – see Grant Bradley’s Message from the Far North to Air NZ: ‘You’ve got the bloody money to fly to Kaitaia’.

Despite getting a small telling off from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, as well as a rather technocratic putdown from Finance Minister Grant Robertson, Jones’ stance is also gaining some support from within his former party. After all, Jones is playing a role of being something of “Labour’s conscience” – standing up for those being neglected at the margins. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising to see Labour politicians eventually start backing him up.

According to Peter Wilson, “It now appears to have dawned on Labour, somewhat belatedly, that Jones is getting traction and probably votes as well. Transport Minister Phil Twyford, a Cabinet heavyweight, decided on Friday it was time he got in on the act” – see: Shane Jones’ plain-speaking a play for the regions.

Twyford is quoted: “Shane was expressing a view that was entirely consistent with what our government stands for – the regions cannot put up with the constant retrenchment and cutting back of infrastructure and services”, and that Air New Zealand has “an obligation to listen to the views of the major shareholder and take those views into account.”

National also saw the light, with Richard Harman explaining on Thursday that “National’s first reaction to Jones’ comments was to criticise him. But by yesterday morning some of their MPs were starting to get calls from provincial members of the party advising them to back off” – see: Tensions at the top.

National MP Nathan Guy has been campaigning on the issue, in terms of Air New Zealand’s withdrawal from his own electorate on the Kapiti Coast. And a former provincial National MP wrote wholeheartedly in support of Jones, saying “Shane Jones is only letting the shareholders’ views get through to the board, and he is quite right to do so. That is what representation is all about” – see Chester Borrows’ Air NZ can’t complain about Shane Jones’ withering criticism.

Like others, Borrows points out that “politics kept Air New Zealand alive when they were about to breathe their last gasp. They can’t complain now politics wants payback.”

Writing in the latest Listener, even Jane Clifton, who might normally be inclined to mock Jones’ campaign, shows some sympathy: “this has the makings of a classic big business versus the little people fight. In this economy, Air NZ is more an unavoidable public utility, like power and water services, than a mere player in a competitive market. Since the global financial crisis, it hasn’t seemed quite so Pollyannaish for politicians to demand social responsibility from businesses.”

Of course, not all commentators have been championing Jones. And plenty of experts have pointed out the impropriety of a minister campaigning in ways they regard as contrary to Cabinet rules and commercial logic. In terms of the latter, the must-read is Martin van Beynen’s Shane Jones is the hot air beneath our wings.

Finally, for parody, see Andrew Gunn’s Welcome to your Air New Zealand flight Mr Jones, and my blog post, Cartoons about Shane Jones vs Air New Zealand.