The Prime Minister has pulled Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones into line after he called for Air New Zealand’s chairman Tony Carter to resign.
Jacinda Ardern says the New Zealand First MP’s comments “were a step too far.”
But Jones has stopped short of an apology, saying only that he knows he has “no authority as to the future tenure of the Board.”
Jones called out Carter on Wednesday morning, after earlier slamming the airline for cutting some of its regional flights. This prompted a strong response from Carter, who on Tuesday said he had written to Minister of Finance Grant Robertson, one of two shareholding ministers, to “reinforce that the airline will always act independently.”
The Government owns 52% of the airline.
Arden says as Jones has always been a strong defender of the regions – “[his comments] won’t surprise anyone.”
She explained to Jones that he is “absolutely entitled to an opinion, which he has shared, but suggesting anyone from the Board should go is a step too far.”
But Jones’ job is safe, Ardern says – “this is not a sackable offence.”
Asked if she was confident Jones was not going to make similar comments again in the future, Ardern says Jones is “of course always going to have opinions.”
“What we have to do is make sure that we draw the line, as a Government we have a large interest in Air New Zealand, to make sure we don’t overstep the mark. Even though he has not got the ability to follow through on what he has suggested, it has gone too far.”
Challenge remains the same
Jones defended his comments, saying that because of his “championing of the provinces, I have made, I believe, a fair bit of traction on the issue.”
But he says his challenge to Air New Zealand “remains the same.”
“I have been told that whilst I am a Cabinet Minister I have no authority as to the future tenure of the Board, I accept that – that has been made crystal clear to me.”
He reiterated that every time a chief executive pokes their nose into the political boxing ring, they have two options: get into politics or go back into the corporate box.
“If anyone on that board believes they are going to muzzle me as a champion for the provinces, they are sadly mistaken.”
Asked if he stands by his comments, he says they have “gone through a process of refinement.”
“Both Grant [Robertson] and the Prime Minister have said ‘Shane, you have a strong view as a regional, provincial champion but you have no authority to effect changes at the level of the Board – I accept that.”
Called out by Bridges
Opposition leader Simon Bridges was quick to criticise Jones and the Government on Wednesday afternoon over the saga.
“If anyone thought this Government was a friend of business, now they know that’s absolutely not true,” he says, adding that if business wasn’t worried before “they certainly will be now.”
Bridges called Jones out for accepting Air NZ’s invitation to a dinner on Thursday night with former US President Barack Obama.
“If Shane Jones is so much the enemy, so much the foe of Air NZ, why has he accepted corporate hospitality from Air NZ to be at the Obama dinner?”
Jones says he was invited to the dinner and is the only NZ First MP making an appearance.
He disputes Bridges criticism, saying he’s going to listen to one of the “greatest Western leaders of my lifetime.”
He says Westpac and Mastercard are also sponsoring the event. As for Air NZ – “as a proxy for 52% owner of Air NZ, I’ll go where I like.”
He cannot recall who sent him the invitation.