Mitch Harris: When Jones Goes Rogue

Opinion 23/03/2018

By Mitch Harris, Night Talk host. 

OPINION: Yes I know, it was a way of differentiating the NZ First brand.

It was mere political theatre, an unfair, scurrilous attack on some of our sharpest business minds when Shane Jones attacked Air New Zealand for closing down its services to Kapiti and other provincial airports.

The NZ First Regional Development Minister picked up a megaphone to tell Air NZ: “We as a Government have our pillars of well-being and one pillar is that we don’t want the provinces to be second rate citizens just for the board of Air NZ to run a corporate model that deliberately downgrades provincial New Zealand - that’s a deliberate model and it’s not the only model.”

Jones went even further by calling for Air NZ chairman Tony Carter to step down and for CEO Christopher Luxon to stay out of politics. This came after Luxon echoed Carter’s comments that “any appearance of a lack of commercial independence is viewed seriously by the Air NZ Board and is ultimately potentially damaging to the interests of all shareholders, including the Crown.”

The last time Jones went rogue was when he publicly lined up the supermarkets for screwing suppliers and overcharging.  As the former CEO of Foodstuffs, Carter must have felt particular umbrage at Jones now doing a similar number on Air NZ.

All the usual media lackeys that have been employees all their lives weighed in pretending to be the adults in the room scolding Jones for daring to criticise our business masters of the universe.

The trouble is that “business” hasn’t been looking too flash itself lately. Carter is on the board of Fletchers Building and has yet to take any responsibility for the billion dollar debacle.

Theo Speirings is stepping down amidst a quarterly loss and more disaster in China at our biggest company, Fonterra. Despite all the talk, Fonterra hasn’t even come close to emulating Nestle as it was supposed to do.

And we have CBL, an insurance company looking shaky because for some reason a group of bankers with no insurance experience thought they should provide cover for the French trucking industry from New Zealand.

There was much talk about Ardern 'rebuking' Jones... But it was pretty clear that the rest of the coalition was cheering him on.

And then we heard dire warnings issued from the broking community about how much damage Jones’s comments could cause to the share price of Air NZ.  Mind you, the recent dismal performances of Intueri and Metro Glass after their IPOs doesn’t give you much confidence in the local broking community’s ability to value businesses.

The Nats are all over the place on this. Local Kapiti MP Nathan Guy started a petition to keep Air NZ flying in before the new leader decided it was better for National to adopt its traditional position of supporting business whatever the facts.  And of course in 2014 Sir John Key chose Blenheim as a venue to criticise Air NZ for high regional airfares saying it shouldn’t use its monopoly position and to deliver fair pricing to the regions.

There was much talk about Jacinda Ardern “rebuking” Jones for “going too far” but it was pretty clear that the rest of the coalition was cheering him on.

Nobody wants to see Air NZ turning into a big fat taxpayer cash gobbler. But let’s face it; it will be a rise in fuel prices that will cause the traditionally shaky airline industry to wobble.

What we do know is that if the provinces are cut off the economic cost to New Zealand will be a hell of a lot higher than Air NZ losing a bit of money on a couple of routes.

And if the directors and management of Air NZ think that trying to belittle their 51 percent majority shareholder is a good idea then they probably won’t be there much longer.

Mitch Harris is the host of Night Talk, 8pm - 12am on RadioLIVE.