They say allegations of pork barrel politics can stick to a politician, so it pays to be prepared.
Shane Jones, the Regional Economic Development Minister, at least looked the part as he appeared before select committee on Wednesday wearing a personalised, hi-vis Kiwirail jacket.
This week ministers have been appearing before various select committees to answer questions about their portfolios.
The visits have often turned into grudge matches, with Chris Hipkins and Nikki Kaye squaring off on Tuesday and Amy Adams and Grant Robertson following suit the next day.
Jones’ appearance was, as expected, no different as National’s economic and regional development spokesperson Paul Goldsmith took up the bulk of the questioning time.
After correcting a figure used by Jones’ in his opening address, Goldsmith accused the Minister of spending an unfair share of the $3 billion provincial growth fund in Northland.
Jones stood in Whangarei for New Zealand First in last year’s election and the region is seen as important to the party’s future survival.
Brandishing figures he had received from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Goldsmith revealed that to date Northland had received $54 million in funding while the rest of New Zealand had been given just $42m. This was despite funding requests by regions outside of Northland totalling $240m.
He also criticised the secrecy surrounding the fund, complaining that multiple requests for basic information about how the money was being spent had gone unanswered.
Jones admitted it was a fair point about transparency and said officials would try to do better, but said Northland’s success was mostly down to it being better prepared and was unrelated to his political leanings.
He praised far north mayor John Carter and former National MP Murray McCully for their work on a regional development plan that meant projects were ready to go.
But there was a concession that the money was only available because of the coalition agreement.
“I’d say the fund came as the consequence of the political process to create the government and there’s rule number one in politics; to the winner goes the booty … and the booty, in this case, is to all the surge regions and the best-organised surge region, irrespective of how you want to spin it, has proven to be the leadership of the north.”
Moving on, Goldsmith then asked why advice from the Treasury warning against a $6m investment in a nursery in the small town of Minginui had been ignored.
With the town having a population of just 150, Goldsmith said there were concerns about the long-term viability of such a large nursery once the Government’s one billion trees initiative finished.
In response, Jones said he wasn’t beholden to Treasury’s advice and needed to make bold decisions to turn around the fortunes of some of the struggling regions.
“I’m up in the wheelhouse, those lilliputian objectives you’ve got, they’re down in the bilge water.”
Speaking after the hearing, Goldsmith said National was not opposed to good spending but there were serious concerns about the fund’s transparency.
“It’s the arrogance and shamelessness about the political nature of the fund that’s of great concern to us.
“There’s just absolutely no clarity about how decisions are being made and all we can fall back on is a grossly political pork barrel approach in the absence of any other clear outline or framework being disclosed.”
Goldsmith also noted that funding for Taranaki had been announced a week before the Prime Minister announced an end to future oil and gas exploration.
For his part, Jones continued with his metaphors and said that was simply “the way the cookie crumbled”.
“I’m a guy with political ants in my pants and if a region is well organised and they have proposals that have been largely tested then I don’t think that region should be injured because others are a bit slower.”