Bryce Edwards: Can Shane Jones be trusted in making Fast-track decisions?

Bryce Edwards: Can Shane Jones be trusted in making Fast-track decisions?

New Zealand First Cabinet Minister Shane Jones has become the best advertisement against the Government’s Fast Track Approvals Bill. In selling the radical new resource consenting processes, in which ministers can green light any mine, dam, or other major development, Jones seems to be shooting the proposal in the foot.

The damage Jones is causing to the Fast-Track was particularly apparent this week when it emerged that he had a secret meeting with mining industry bosses. For opponents, these undeclared meetings, in which Jones encouraged the companies to apply to the Government for Fast-Track permission to bypass the RMA, illustrate the problems with the bill. It’s seen as encouraging individual businesses to get close to politicians, who can then hand out permissions for private developments without proper process.

The Story of Jones’ meetings with mining companies

As Minister for Regional Development and Resources, Shane Jones visited the West Coast in mid-February. His Beehive office scheduled a dinner meeting with three mining company bosses, during which Jones explained the Government’s upcoming Fast-Track resource consenting processes.

One of the mining bosses, Barry Bragg of the Stevenson Group, then wrote a letter to Christopher Bishop (also copying in Jones) about his company’s proposed Te Kuha opencast coal mine project that the courts have blocked. Bragg wrote: “I had dinner with Resources and Regional Development Minister Shane Jones last Friday and he suggested I write to you to ask that the Te Kuha coal project be considered for listing in the fast-track and one-stop shop bill.”

This letter was discovered by Newsroom journalist David Williams, who had made an Official Information Act request. He then noticed that Jones had not declared the meeting in his official Ministerial Diaries for February – see: Jones suggested fast-track bid at undeclared dinner

These diaries, which have been in place since 2018, detail all the meetings that ministers have in their capacity as ministers. They are released as a transparency mechanism to allow the public to scrutinise the government’s decision-making and be aware of any potential vested interests’ influence.

On Tuesday this week, Jones explained that the absence of an entry in his diaries was simply due to his office being unaware of the spontaneous meeting: “When I had a dinner with Barry Bragg down on the West Coast, it was very much a last-minute thing, because I was in the middle of nowhere.”

However, the next day, Jones corrected this, saying: “My office had actually been in contact with them two days prior to me going down there… What I told you [on Monday] is what I thought was actually the truth” – see David Williams’ Jones’ undeclared dinner had two more mining industry attendees

Explaining the failure to declare the meeting, Jones said: “To be honest with you, less conspiracy more cock-up – and inattention in our office.”

Jones had also conveyed the previous day that the dinner was with just one businessperson, but on Wednesday he informed the journalist that “he also dined with Bathurst Resources chief executive Richard Tacon and Federation Mining vice president Simon Delander.”

Criticisms of Jones and the Fast-Track proposal

Newsroom’s David Williams reported some of the reactions to these various revelations. Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis was cited as suggesting the missing diary entry meant the public would distrust the political process: “It’s problematic, not just for this particular issue of how are things getting into the fast-track procedures but just more generally, with regards: how do we know who is getting in the ear of and having an influence over ministers?”

Geddis also suggests that ministers such as Jones will have to step aside from many of the Fast-Track decisions if they have already had meetings with the applicants. Otherwise, there will be questions of bias and “A lot of stuff’s going to get judicially reviewed.”

Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International New Zealand has also reacted to the saga, saying it’s another “red flag” and “symptom of what has been a flawed Bill” – see David Williams’ third article on the issue: Diary cock-up heaps pressure on fast-track ministers

He quotes Transparency International NZ’s Julie Haggie saying that the concentration of power in the Fast-Track proposals, together with the lobbying by businesses, reduces the integrity of the system: “It starts to take on the flavour of things like favouritism and patronage and clientelism.”

The World Wildlife Fund NZ’s Kayla Kingdon-Bebb is also reported: “Shane Jones’ ongoing lack of transparency should be evidence enough that the final decision-making on fast-track proposals should absolutely not reside with three development-focused Ministers.”

RNZ’s Giles Dexter has also covered the Jones saga, reporting that Forest & Bird point to this as an example of “why ministers should not be given final sign-off on projects” – see: Government’s invite list shows fast-track process is flawed – Forest & Bird

Forest & Bird’s lawyer, Peter Anderson, explains why the consenting process needs to be much more participatory than just involving three ministers: “Lobbying and that kind of stuff goes on all the time. But the light that gets shone on it happens when you go through a proper consenting process, where the public can look at the details of the application, see what’s happening, and make informed comments about it.”

The RNZ article also looks at the company that Jones met with – Stevenson Group, which is applying to have their Te Kuha mine fast-tracked: “Earlier in May, the Environment Court released a costs decision against Stevenson and the Te Kuha project, awarding $113,000 to Forest & Bird and the Department of Conservation $103,000.”

The article quotes Forest & Bird’s Peter Anderson saying that this is the sort of example of where a project that has already been considered and rejected by the Environmental Court shouldn’t then be eligible for fast-tracking: “If you’ve gone through the process and you’ve got declined, you don’t get another crack.”

Shane Jones’ vote-gathering motivations

What motivates Jones to side so strongly with business on the Fast Track and related issues? According to Herald political editor Claire Trevett, it’s all about winning votes off Labour. She argued last week that Jones is trying to appeal to working class voters, especially the blue-collar type in the provinces that have become repelled by Labour’s pursuit of “identity issues” and “woke things” – see: Luxon and Stanford visit the 1980s, Shane Jones’ fast track bill method in madness (paywalled)

Here’s her main point: “Jones is a former Labour politician himself who harked to the working-class end of Labour rather than the progressive end. The way he wants to get voters is by creating jobs in industries such as mining, and the parts of the country that once relied on them.” And she reports that Jones is about to “head to the capital of coal, Blackball, on the West Coast, to deliver a speech. He has chosen that place partly because of its history with mining, but mainly for political mischief: it was the Labour Party’s birthplace.”

Trevett argues that NZ First – the party that is believed to have drafted the Fast-Track Approvals Bill – is determined that Jones retains the final signoff decision on Fast-Track applications so that the party can then directly take the credit for the job-creating initiatives. In this sense, the Fast-Track proposal is akin, but bigger, than NZ First’s last initiative for winning provincial working class votes when the party was last in coalition with Labour: “Jones’ previous vehicle, the Provincial Growth Fund, was a hotchpotch of small projects sprinkled around. It was small fry compared to the likely fast-track projects, which are quite large and will be jobs generators.”

Shane Jones’ vested interests and conflicts of interest

In allowing NZ First’s Fast-Tracking Approvals Bill to progress, National should pay attention to some of the lessons from Jones’ Provincial Growth Fund under the last Labour-led Government. Being something of a “slush fund,” the Provincial Growth Fund was strongly criticised numerous times by the Auditor General. It was found that the $3bn fund lacked clear reporting on what the money was spent on, the processes for allocating the money, and whether it represented value for the taxpayer.

National itself criticised the fund as a politically driven project for the “pork-barrel” benefit of NZ First. They specifically said that Shane Jones couldn’t be trusted to oversee the fund, noting that $556m of the fund was allocated to Jones’ home electorate of Northland. It is, therefore, ironic that National is now entrusting Jones as the designer and leading salesperson for the Fast-Track proposal.

There will now be plenty of examples of Jones being connected to the potential companies applying for a fast-track. Already, one strong connection has been highlighted by the Herald’s Thomas Coughlan: one of the companies approached by the Government about the Fast-Track is Kings Quarry in Auckland, which is part-owned by Andrew Ritchie, who is also the director and part-owner of AJR Finance, which “donated $50,000 to NZ First and $5000 to Shane Jones at the last election” – see: Quarry connected to $55,000 donation to NZ First and Shane Jones, approached over fast-track (paywalled)

Coughlan also reports, “There are several firms on the list with which Jones has a history.” And there might now be much more focus on other companies that the Minister has been meeting with about the Fast-Track. For example, Southland Times’ Debbie Jamieson reported last month that Jones visited two Central Otago mining companies – Hawkeswood Mining and Santana Minerals – and encouraged them to apply for a Fast-Track – see: Central Otago gold mine backers aim for fast track approval

Both companies say they intend to apply. As to whether this could lead to biodiversity loss in the areas they want to mine, Jones asserted he would not allow such creatures to be “either deified or weaponised to prevent economic development”.

Ultimately, Jones is strongly influenced by his clearly stated allegiances to the industries he oversees – especially mining and fishing. For more on Jones’ connections to such companies, and how they’ve impacted his other ministerial decision-making, see my earlier column, Why Shane Jones sunk the Kermadecs Marine Sanctuary

Ultimately, it will be up to the public to decide whether Jones is too close to industry and whether this is a problem for the Fast-Track proposal. In this sense, it’s worth noting that Horizon Research conducted a survey earlier this year (and commissioned by Greenpeace). The company found that 57 per cent of the public agree that MPs who accept donations from the fishing industry should not be the Minister for Oceans and Fisheries, and 85 per cent do not trust Shane Jones to look after New Zealand’s ocean and fisheries.

It’s hard to believe that the results would be much different if the public were asked about entrusting Jones to protect New Zealand’s environment and society from property developers, miners, and others wanting to get his permission to bypass the usual rules. Yet that’s exactly what the Fast Track Approvals Bill does.

Dr Bryce Edwards

Political Analyst in Residence, Director of the Democracy Project, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington

This article can be republished for free under a Creative Commons copyright-free license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project (https://democracyproject.nz)