It is hard to work out which issue is damaging the Government more, Nick Smith’s omnishambles handling of Auckland’s housing crisis or Murray McCully’s Sheepgate fiasco. Both issues refuse to die and with pieces of information concerning both matters materialising regularly it is likely that both issues will continue to dominate the media. It may be a race between McCully and Smith to see who will be sacked as a minister first.
Two weeks after an urgent application was made by Audrey Young at the Herald the cabinet papers which John Key claimed showed that it was all Labour’s fault have now been released.
Key made a number of allegations a couple of weeks ago. He made statements like these:
I would take this opportunity to encourage the member to speak to Annette King and Phil Goff about the warnings that they received on these issues when they were in Government and about the actions that they were looking to take. He might be amazingly surprised to hear the answers …
it is not just this Government that was aware; actually, it was the previous Government. I encourage the member to look to his right and speak with Annette King and with Phil Goff, because he will become very aware that he has just been set up by his deputy leader …
[A]s paperwork may one day show, the heart of the issues was not actually with this Government; it was with the actions taken in 2007. And, by the way, the previous Government was well and truly aware of that …
What lies at the heart of this problem are the actions taken in 2007. The record will show that the previous Government was well and truly aware of that. Mr Little has just been set up by Phil Goff and Annette King …
as maybe the record will show, in 2007 the previous Labour Government was well and truly aware of the situation and was looking to take its own actions. That member has been set up by Annette King and Phil Goff …
So what do the papers show? Do they show any sign of warnings of litigation because of the fifth labour government’s ban on live sheep export for slaughter? Do they show that the last Government knew of these risks?
Not that I can see. The papers mention that “restrictions on exports of livestock for slaughter would themselves entail international legal, commercial and diplomatic risks” but the passages which presumably discuss those risks have all been deleted. Most excisions are under section 6(a) of the Official Information Act which allows for the withholding of information if making that information available is likely “to prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand or the international relations of the Government of New Zealand”. Note this applies to inter government relations and not to government-Saudi sheep farmer relations.
The only specific legal risk mentioned is that of a judicial review application of the decision to install the ban. Consultation was recommended to minimise this risk.
The most relevant passage I could see was in the Cabinet Paper of December 12, 2007. It said this:
A bilateral Arrangement has also been under negotiation to allow for the resumption of live sheep exports on a commercial basis, and the Saudis have received good-faith assurances from New Zealand to this end. The imposition of restrictive measures which adversely impacted on the success of the Awassi New Zealand project would have implications related to the attractiveness of New Zealand as a secure environment for investment, and failure to negotiate the reinstatement of the live sheep trade could result in some negative political fallout with Saudi Arabia.
The report clearly addresses reputational and political risks in relation to the Awassi New Zealand project and makes no reference to legal risks, presumably because there were none.
David Parker was interviewed on the matter by Radio New Zealand. He said this:
The papers show the original ban being extended because of concerns about inhumane treatment after landing, using slaughter methods not allowed in New Zealand.
National’s excuse was always nonsense. The actions of the prior Labour government were legal, and, indeed, renewed twice by National in 2010 and 2013.
No claim had ever been filed by Al-Khalaf, and would have expired under the Limitation Act even if it had been real.”
And the Government’s response? More obfuscation. Holy shifting goal posts! Acting Minister Todd McLay is reported as saying this:
Acting Foreign Minister Todd McClay said Labour was also repeatedly warned its actions carried legal, commercial and diplomatic risks.
“The documents show that live sheep exports for slaughter stopped in 2003 but in the following year Labour began to negotiate a bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia to resume those exports.
“The papers show Labour knew it had a Saudi investor in New Zealand who was operating a breeding programme of sheep for export to Saudi Arabia, so it sought to address that by resuming live exports.
“Labour started to negotiate a deal with Saudi Arabia to resume live exports ‘on a commercial basis’.”
He said the then-Foreign Minister travelled to Riyadh in 2006 when he told a Saudi minister that New Zealand was happy with the deal and had no objections to its conclusion in the near future.
“However, Labour then changed its position and acted in bad faith.
“The papers show Labour reviewed settings around live exports and made a deliberate decision not to inform Saudi Arabia about the review until after it was completed.”
So no final deal had been agreed to, clearly there was no legal obligation to do so, and most importantly there was absolutely no sign of any litigation which would justify the payment of $4 million to a Saudi Sheep farmer.
To make matters even worse it has been reported that three quarters of the lambs born to the ewes who were transported to the farm have died from causes such as starvation, scours and issues around animal husbandry. Who would have thought that placing New Zealand sheep on a farm in the middle of a desert would be so disastrous?
Nick Smith is probably happy that in the clusterfuck race McCully has slightly edged ahead of him with these latest revelations. But the Government must be deeply concerned that its manufactured veneer of competence is being utterly trashed.