Shane Jones - The billion dollar man

The new champion of the regions, Shane Jones has some bold ideas. Photo: Getty

Around Parliament, there’s no-one quite like Shane Jones. He explains to Shane Cowlishaw how he will plant a billion trees and spend a billion dollars, likely ruffling feathers along the way.

There’s a trademark chuckle from Shane Jones as he’s told of a journalist wondering whether the lazy nephews he’s referred to are his real nephews.

It turns out they are "figurative" nephews, but Jones says he did get a call from a genuine younger relative - to tell him he had got his terminology wrong during his Q+A interview: “Nephs, everyone calls them these days apparently”.

It was in the Q+A interview that Jones spoke of his desire to see young, unemployed youth, particularly Maori, working instead of sitting on the couch collecting the dole.

It was a classic Jones interview: nonchalance and orative language alongside a bombshell idea - a mix that the media love.

Following his resignation as a Labour Party MP in 2014, Jones spent a relatively headline-free three years as Pacific Economic Ambassador.

But now he is back, this time with New Zealand First but joined together with his former Labour colleagues in the new coalition Government.

It wasn't expected to take long for Jones to ruffle some feathers, and he hasn't disappointed with his plan to get the country’s rural NEETS ('not in education, employment, or training') into jobs.

“Obviously this is a Labour/New Zealand First Government and from time to time I, as the megaphone of New Zealand First, am going to be highlighting particularly sensitive issues in the regions.

“What is the point, I say to myself, being a political leader of Maori extraction hailing from some of these benighted areas and not actually being bold both in rhetoric and intervention.”

To do this he plans to take, in conjunction with Employment Minister Willie Jackson’s office, four proposals to Cabinet that will make use of a $60 million untouched NEET fund that was set aside by the previous Government.

Details of the proposals can’t be revealed yet, but Jones is adamant that on his watch young people who could be working won’t be getting a free ride.

But what if they refuse to go to work? Many of the jobs Jones wants to see filled will be in tough, physical industries such as forestry and the railways. What sanctions are available, other than removing the dole itself, for people who would rather sit on the couch?

“Therein lies the policy conundrum and therein lies the debate obviously that we’ve just got to work through as a Government. I cannot, and I won’t, say anything other than I’m one in 20 [in Cabinet] and I very well may be proven to be off the mark with this," Jones says.

“I envisage some of my own figurative 'nephs' not wanting to do that because they’re not physically fit enough or they believe it’s not fitting for how they view their status in society. I’m pushing that is the avenue you have to travel down and if sanctions need to be applied as well as incentives I’m going to forcefully advocate for that.”

Asked about the issue at her post-Cabinet press conference later on Monday afternoon, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that sanctions were already in place for people who refused job offers. She said the discussion at Cabinet would be around how those sanctions would apply to such a programme. She added that workers would need to be paid the minimum wage, and said there was little difference between Jones' proposals and Labour's own 'Ready for Work' programmes aimed at ensuring young unemployed people were either in work or training.

The billion-dollar man

With twitching fingers, Jones is waiting to begin dishing out the fruits that have flowed from New Zealand First’s choice to side with Labour.

As the Minister of both Regional Economic Development and Infrastructure he will oversee a $1 billion regional superfund, a centrepiece of the coalition agreement that has rural councils and iwi salivating.

But money is tight.

In a recent interview with Newsroom, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said all Ministers were looking at where money could be shifted from non-core projects to meet more pressing demands.

It begs the questions, will Jones be given free rein to spend his fund as he sees fit?

Jones, in typical Jones fashion, is confident.

“Some trust in chariots, others in horses. I as a politician trust my coalition agreement so I don’t see a problem whatsoever in establishing our fund.”

While he has yet to begin spending Jones says that has not stopped a litany of would-be benefactors lining up at his door.

The Wairoa Mayor wants a rail link restored, Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon will soon visit, and Jones has met with the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council about their Matariki economic development plan.

He also has appointments with Manawatu/Whanganui and Bay of Plenty councils about their respective plans to boost economic growth.

Many local authorities are concerned about infrastructure costs that cannot be funded out of the Land Transport Fund and Jones is “waiting to get some direction” from Transport Minister Phil Twyford about how it will mesh with his own regional fund.

Aside from rail, one area of investment that appears to be back in contention is water.

Jones says that while large-scale storage developments such as the Ruataniwha dam are not in contention, smaller local storage and irrigation schemes could be.

This seems to go against Jones’ lauded coalition agreement, which signalled a move away from Government investment in the area and could strain relations with both Labour and the Greens.

But if it can be done in a way the environment can tolerate, Jones sees it as potentially the only option to restore the economies of areas that will suffer as climate change continues to change rainfall patterns.

“I don’t actually want to create any local storage that worsens the environment, I’m actually trying to enhance the environment because unless land can be used productively, unless land can actually generate employment and create a surplus so the land can be in a better state, I’m at my wits end of what we’re going to do with this Maori land.”

The great wall of wood

Jones’ other portfolio, Forestry, is intrinsically linked to boosting the regions.

It was headlining-grabbing stuff when the announcement was made that the Government would look to plant one billion trees in the next decade.

Exactly who will plant those trees, and where, is still foggy.

Almost immediately there were accusations of backtracking from the opposition after it was revealed it would only be an additional 500 million trees on top of the 500 million already planted by the industry.

But it’s still a lot of wood, a “wall of wood” as Jones describes it, and he says officials are already dealing with land owners and preparing to enter into partnerships and joint venture arrangements.

For example, the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council has identified a swathe of potential forestry land totalling 200,000 hectares, stretching from the Wairarapa up to Gisborne.

It is largely owned by Ngati Kahungunu, with some in private hands, and it would be up to the State to go in and secure buy-in from all interested parties.

Jones is confident such projects can be accomplished, with iwi and councils were “lining up” to get on board.

Getting the aforementioned NEETS into the industry was a cornerstone but Jones admits finding enough staff causes him some anxiety, while how the forestry expansion fits in with the Emissions Trading Scheme is also unknown.

Jones, along with Environment Minister David Parker and Climate Change Minister James Shaw have discussed the matter but are "ironing out the finer points", Jones says.

Following the announced forestry expansion, international investors keen to put money into carbon farming have also been in touch to express their interest.

Foreign ownership is prevalent in the industry, with much of the land in iwi hands but more than 70 percent of the trees held overseas.

With New Zealand First’s foreign ownership views well-known it was somewhat surprising to see a pro-overseas investment press release come from Jones' office following the Government’s decision to crack-down on foreigners buying rural land.

Forestry was exempted and it was under this premise that Jones praised foreign investment.

He understands how that could be construed and while he is “keen as mustard” to see more local ownership, the reality is it will be needed to achieve the growth plan.

“I accept that there’s a political perspective out there where people are a tad surprised that I was in that position of advocacy but welcome to the pragmatism of where business meets politics," he says.

“I accept that some of my communication style and forceful language does raise hackles but I’m here for a good time because I’m going to do good.”