Jones rebuked over Air NZ attacks

Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones pushes his way through a media pack at Parliament. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Shane Jones has been rebuked for his attacks on Air New Zealand’s board of directors, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying calling for their resignations was “a step too far”.

However, the Regional Economic Development Minister has said he will not be “muzzled” by the company over his criticism of cuts to regional routes.

Jones has been warring with Air New Zealand over its decision to end flights to Kapiti, having cut flights to Kaitaia in 2015.

Air New Zealand Chairman Tony Carter took the unusual step yesterday of publicly rebuking Jones on Tuesday, issuing a statement saying he had written to his shareholding minister Grant Robertson to "reinforce that the airline will always act independently of the Crown”.

Carter referred directly in the statement issued through the NZX to Jones' comments about regional services in connection with the Government's 51 percent shareholding when noting the stake gave it equal rights with other shareholders.

"Any appearance of a lack of commercial independence is viewed seriously by the Air New Zealand Board and is ultimately potentially damaging to the interests of all shareholders, including the Crown," Carter said.

Jones struck back on Wednesday morning, telling Stuff that Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon - who backed Carter’s comments - needed to decide whether he was a politician or a businessman.

“If you want to be a politician, step down today, otherwise get back into your box,” Jones said.

He also said Carter had “long since outlived his usefulness” as chairman, and said Air New Zealand had to recognise it was majority-owned by the Crown.

“I think the original point that Shane raised as someone who is a strong defender of the regions won’t surprise anyone...but calling for the sacking of any board member is a step too far and I have told Shane Jones that.”

Speaking to media on Wednesday afternoon, Ardern said she had sympathy for the substance of Jones’ concerns, but not the manner in which he had expressed them.

“I think the original point that Shane raised as someone who is a strong defender of the regions won’t surprise anyone...but calling for the sacking of any board member is a step too far and I have told Shane Jones that.”

Asked whether Jones himself should stand down as a result of his comments, Ardern said the issue was “not a sacking offence, not for any Air New Zealand board member, not for Shane”.

Deputy Prime Minister and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters defended his MP, saying Jones was simply “asking questions” of Air New Zealand, similar to media outlets.

“What we’re saying is it’s just like the Supreme Court, nobody is above being questioned as to their judgements, and nor is Air New Zealand, that’s all I’ll say...

“We’re entitled in Whangarei to know why there’s not a direct route from Wellington to Whangarei as there once was.”

“I accept that the Prime Minister said I don’t have the authority to bring into being the disappearance of the chairman or anyone on the board, but if anyone on that board believes that they’re going to muzzle me as a champion for the provinces, then they are sadly mistaken.”

Jones acknowledged he had no say over Air New Zealand’s board, but doubled down on his criticism of Luxon.

“Every time the CEO pokes his nose into the political boxing ring he’s got one of two options - get into politics or go back to the corporate box....

“But I accept I do not have any authority over the appointment or the retention of any of the directors, that has been made crystal clear to me.”

Jones said he had created “a fair degree of traction” on the issue of Air New Zealand’s regional routes and would continue to advocate for the regions.

“I accept that the Prime Minister said I don’t have the authority to bring into being the disappearance of the chairman or anyone on the board, but if anyone on that board believes that they’re going to muzzle me as a champion for the provinces, then they are sadly mistaken.”

Asked whether he was bullying Air New Zealand’s board, he suggested their high director’s fees had to come with a degree of robustness.

“If one politician using some florid rhetoric, they see that to be bullying, then really… these are people at the apex of the New Zealand corporate system, they’re handsomely paid, they should be able to tolerate political opinion, political challenges - if you don’t like that then don’t take the director's salary.”