Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Graham Adams: The smoking gun in the Mahuta saga

Long-time Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen once memorably described news conferences as “feeding the chooks”.

It was hard not to think of that quip by the Dannevirke-born politician who dominated Queensland’s politics for decades when Nanaia Mahuta bustled towards a gaggle of press gallery journalists at Parliament last Wednesday.

“I know what everyone wants to ask!” she announced presumptuously, before launching into a breathy spiel without a single question having been put to her:

“I’m really pleased that the Public Service Commissioner is going to have a look at issues around the way in which conflicts of interest have been managed in relation to government contracts. I think that’s an important step forward.”

The powerful Minister of Foreign Affairs and Local Government firmly denied any wrongdoing and was keen to distance herself from the four government contracts awarded to the consultancy company Ka Awatea Services, owned by her husband, Gannin Ormsby. They had been signed with Kāinga Ora, the Ministry for the Environment, Department of Conservation and the Ministry of Māori Development / Te Puni Kōkiri, from which KAS received as much as $136,000 in total.

When government contracts with Kawai Catalyst, owned by Gannin Ormsby’s nephew and his wife, Tamoko and Waimirirangi Ormsby, are included in the roundup of Mahuta family appointments, the total comes to more than $200,000.

The contracts were awarded directly without the positions being openly advertised.

At the time the contracts were signed, Mahuta was Associate Minister in three of the four agencies involved. She has never held ministerial responsibilities for the Department of Conservation.

She told the journalists again that she was “pleased” the commissioner would look at an “inconsistent approach” by government departments in “the way conflicts of interest have been managed by them. That is a matter at departmental level.”

The commissioner’s jurisdiction is limited to the public service and does not include the actions of ministers.

Mahuta was also keen to give the impression she had virtuously front-footed the issue by writing to Chris Hipkins, the Minister for the Public Service, on September 19, to help clear the air. He subsequently wrote to Hughes.

In fact, National MP Simeon Brown had already written to Hughes asking for an inquiry into the issue on August 29 and again on September 13.

Given the storm of allegations swirling on social media as well, it is obvious Mahuta’s hand had been forced. But here she was, boldly making a virtue of necessity.

For months now, she has been able to rely on the mainstream media — with the honourable exception of the NZ Herald’s Kate MacNamara — to look the other way.

The journalists who had briefly questioned her previously — including Jason Walls at Newstalk ZB and Jack Tame on Q&A — had been easily fobbed off.

However, on Wednesday afternoon, the minister met stiffer questioning than she was perhaps expecting from the assembled press gallery journalists.

One asked: “David Seymour used the word ‘corruption’. Is that fair?”

Instead of answering directly, Mahuta immediately repeated the government’s PR line designed to direct attention away from herself towards underlings: “That’s why it’s important for the [Public Service Commissioner] to look at the way in which government departments have managed conflicts of interest.”

There was, however, another, more explosive question. Unfortunately, it was phrased so imprecisely and hesitantly that Mahuta could again fudge the answer, although it clearly made her uncomfortable.

The journalist asked: “With the fourth case, where you had a hand in choosing — was it your niece? — where you had a hand in the appointment process, the fourth case, which is not being investigated, was that managed properly?”

In fact, the journalist seemed to have lost count and perhaps meant the “fifth case”. However, Mahuta knew she was referring to the appointment of Waimirirangi Ormsby — her niece by marriage — to the He Puapua Working Group in 2019 when she was Minister of Māori Development / Te Puni Kōkiri.

Mahuta avoided mentioning He Puapua by name in her answer — presumably in an effort to not draw the attention of the other journalists, or the viewing public, to exactly what the question referred to.

“That’s a matter for Te Puni Kōkiri,” she said. “There were a number of names that were put up, in relation to… the Working Group you are referring to. That was last term. So there were a number of names, with a number of requisite skills… and a number of considerations.

“But the point at which I saw that — by recollection — was at the point where a short list was made and those decisions were made by the department.”

She turned away then to signal the discussion had ended.

Leaving aside the egregious and ongoing conflict of interest with her sister, Tipa, who was appointed to chair the Māori Advisory Group that guides the water regulator Taumata Arowai, the appointment of her niece to the He Puapua Working Group is perhaps the one that leaves Mahuta most exposed.

Unfortunately, the minister’s explanation doesn’t tell the whole story, which has been revealed in answers to the slew of Written Questions lodged by Opposition politicians since June.

As the pseudonymous Thomas Cranmer — who has compiled an extensive dossier on Twitter of the minister’s perceived conflicts of interest — told The Platform: “Mahuta was charged by Cabinet, as Minister for Te Puni Kōkiri, to appoint the Working Group. We have the Cabinet Paper showing that.

“She is correct that TPK officials drew up a short list, but that list was delivered to her as minister to make the final selection.

“There are Written Questions answered by Willie Jackson — the current Minister of Māori Development — confirming this, as well as confirming that she took the final list to the Cabinet Appointments and Honours Committee for formal approval.

“The only action she took at the time to address the conflict [with the appointment of Waimirirangi Ormsby] was that she declared the relationship at the Appointments and Honours Committee. But that is now an inconvenient fact because it contradicts her assertions that she had nothing to do with any appointments.

“Mahuta presumably thought she would be covered by simply declaring the relationship at the final appointment meeting. Of course, that is far too late in the game to make such a declaration because anyone would have to be mad to try to raise an objection in that forum even if they did have concerns.”

Act leader David Seymour is also well aware that this appointment is a smoking gun. He put out a press release on July 17, stating: “Despite her protestations, Nanaia Mahuta is caught out in a clear breach of the Cabinet Manual, overseeing the appointment of her niece to a paid position for which she had ministerial responsibility.

“This is a true breach, for which a minister in government deserves to be held accountable.”

The press release concluded: “The Prime Minister needs to explain how she can be comfortable with a minister who appears to have appointed her niece to a paid government position.”

Ultimately, it is the Prime Minister’s job to oversee her ministers’ conflicts of interest. And that is an important reason why party strategists will make every effort to keep Mahuta above the fray — and thereby protect Jacinda Ardern.

Once Mahuta is directly implicated publicly it becomes the Prime Minister’s responsibility, alongside her minister, to explain the handling of any conflict.

Just how much the unfolding story is already rattling Labour was shown by Chris Hipkins’ interjection in Parliament last Wednesday after Seymour asked Grant Robertson, as Acting Prime Minister, about the contracts awarded to Mahuta’s family.

In an apparent reference to government appointments for English's brothers when he was a minister, Hipkins called out: “Let’s talk about Bill English’s family, shall we? Or it’s okay because he’s white?”

Hipkins later apologised to the House for drawing the former National Party minister and his family into the debate — but not for implying it was racism that is fuelling the criticism of Mahuta.

When a senior minister thinks alleging racism is his best form of attack, it’s evident the government knows it’s in trouble.

Answering questions from host Matty McLean on TVNZ’s Breakfast the next morning, political commentator Matthew Hooton accepted race was indeed a factor in the unfolding scandal — but not in the way Hipkins had implied.

He argued forcefully that the reason the mainstream media had been so slow to investigate the matter was because no journalist wanted to be seen to criticise a powerful Māori woman.

“If this was a National Party person, who was a white male, this would have been a scandal months ago,” he said.

“This has gone on and on, and the media, with all due respect, has not taken it seriously because they don’t want to be seen picking on a Māori woman.

“Race is a factor. Her race and her gender and her status in the Kīngitanga has protected her from media scrutiny until now.

“She continues to be protected by what is a fake, cover-up inquiry…[because] the person who launched it [Chris Hipkins] has already said she is just a victim of racism.”

When asked by a press gallery journalist at Parliament whether racism was a reason for her being targeted, Mahuta replied: “It could well be a number of things. But if you look at other media platforms, you can see there are certain motivations behind this that aren’t helpful…”

She explained her point more fully: “You just have to look at some of the social media platforms that are alternatives to where most people consume their news to see what those motivations are.”

The fact it is necessary to turn to “alternative” sites such as Thomas Cranmer on Twitter, The Platform, Point of Order and the New Zealand Centre for Political Research to find out what is happening at the heart of our government reflects poorly on those reporters who work for media organisations “where most people consume their news”. Which is to say the very journalists standing before the minister at Parliament.

It is clear that if it had been left entirely up to them, we still wouldn’t know much about the Mahuta family saga at all.

Whether the mainstream media will pursue the question of the He Puapua contract given to her niece Waimirirangi Ormsby will be particularly telling.

Thomas Cranmer notes that this particular case “has been excluded from the review because the commissioner, Peter Hughes, can only look at the actions of the agencies and has no power to review ministerial behaviour.

“That, in part, is why Hipkins and Mahuta can go into the process confident that she will be exonerated.

“In order for this to be a comprehensive review, it’s necessary for Ardern to ensure that the appointments of Waimirirangi Ormsby — and Tipa Mahuta — are included.”

And that, of course, will require Peter Hughes’ review to be upgraded to a formal investigation.

Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist. This article was originally published by and is published here with kind permission.

1 comment:

DeeM said...

Sounds like we're in for a classic paint-job, of the white variety.

And even if the investigation casts serious doubts on Mahuta's actions our MSM will simply ignore it, leaving most of NZ in the dark, as usual.