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When spin backfires

Written By: - Date published: 7:46 am, June 28th, 2012 - 41 comments
Categories: privatisation, spin - Tags:

John Key has this weird defence when challenged over the number of Kiwis who will buy and retain shares in his asset sales, given that shareholders in Contact have plummeted from 225,000 at point of listing to 78,000 now. He cites a single article by a single journalist that says Contact is widely-held. Yesterday, Key quoted at length from the year-old article. And walked straight into David Shearer’s trap.

David Shearer: Is he aware that the number of Contact Energy shareholders has reduced from 225,000 to just 78,000 since its sale, and that now just 0.03 percent of shareholders—that is, about 20—own 75 percent of the shares; and why did he say last night that those retail investors who bought shares when it was sold for the most part held on to their shares?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: I have great news for the member. Fifty-one percent of all shares in the mixed-ownership model will be held by one investor, which is called the New Zealand Government, so it is a vastly different proposition. Secondly, the retail component involved people directly buying relatively small parcels, and there was some slight consolidation of the very small parcels some years on. For the purpose of the member’s education, let me read from Pattrick Smellie: “One of the least defensible criticisms of the Key Government’s partial privatisation plans have been regular references to Contact Energy as an example of a privatised company which lost control to foreigners. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The reality of the Contact share register is it remains possibly the most widely held share by domestic New Zealand investors, 11 years on from the float. In fact, Contact’s shareholders have shown a high degree of loyalty to the Company, to the extent that EME’s attempts to take 100% were roundly rebuffed in the early 2000s. What it shows is that many small-scale investors have piled into privatised companies …” [Speaker tells Key to sit down and stop endlessly quoting an old newspaper article]

David Shearer: Is this the same Pattrick Smellie who worked as a public relations consultant for Contact Energy?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: I do not know that, but now, I think, he works for Fairfax…


And, then, Shearer tagged out and in came Russel Norman:

Dr Russel Norman: Given that Treasury documents show that only about 7 percent of New Zealanders are expected to buy shares in these companies, does he think it is more likely to be the 7 percent who got massive tax cuts under his Government, the 7 percent with zero or negative net wealth, or the 7 percent who are unemployed under his Government?

Rt Hon JOHN KEY: [long pause as Key realises none of his lines address this argument] Within the rules that govern the Financial Markets Authority legislation, let me say that the Government is moving ahead with the mixed-ownership model, which will present opportunities for all New Zealanders, if they wish to, to purchase those shares. There are 1.8 million KiwiSaver accounts, which currently hold $12 billion worth of investments. What that member is saying to those 1.8 million KiwiSaver account holders with the $12 billion is that they should go to Australia and buy shares in its energy companies. If the member took just one moment to go and have a look at the share registry owned by the New Zealand Superannuation Fund he would see that they own pretty much most of the listed electricity companies and energy companies in Australia. I, for one, personally would rather see them investing in New Zealand than in Australia. If the member has a different view, well, he is welcome to go and put that to New Zealanders.

Of course, none of this stopped Key turning around and telling journalists that he thought the typical family (which he thinks is on an income of $90,000 – knock $20,000 off that, sunshine) would be able to afford to buy 5 $1,000 parcels of shares in companies that they already own.

Key has committed himself no to a situation where he has promised that not just a couple hundred thousand but more like a million people will buy shares.

If he doesn’t deliver in the Mighty River float – if most middle-class households end up losing their shares because they can’t afford to fork over thousands of dollars for what they already own, then this asset sales programme, and Key’s popularity, will be down the gurgler.

41 comments on “When spin backfires ”

  1. Descendant Of Smith 1

    What I would like to see is that the opposition parties set up a trust where those of us who wish to can purchase shares and then put them in the trust so that a future government can buy them back at the same price we paid for them.

    I’m quite happy to buy my share to have it held on behalf of all taxpayers until they can be repurchased by the state and quite happy to have any profit and increase in value also returned to the tax payer whose assets they are.

    If there is also a way that poor people could also be helped to buy their share and put it into such a trust that would be useful as well.

    • Lanthanide 1.1

      “If there is also a way that poor people could also be helped to buy their share and put it into such a trust that would be useful as well.”

      Um, what? Are you suggesting the opposition parties by shares on behalf of “poor people”? Or that poor people are going to go out, get loans to buy shares that they then put in a trust and don’t benefit from financially in anyway and have to pay interest on the borrowing in the mean time?

      • Carol 1.1.1

        Eh? I thought DoS was suggesting that opponents to asset sales set up a trust. Then Kiwis who can afford it, buy shares that they put into the trust on behalf of all Kiwis.

      • North 1.1.2

        Shades of obstructive pedanticism there L.

        What D of S suggests is a magnificent notion. Application difficult of course but you scotch the essential sentiment in the most high-handed, Tory like, dare I say wannabe parliamentary gravy train rider Petey George ?, fashion.

        You might better have said nothing at all. Know all.

        • Descendant Of Smith

          I’m suggesting two things:

          1. A trust be set up by those parties and people opposed to the sales to hold onto the shares that those of us who can afford to buy the shares but are opposed to their sale to hold onto the shares for a future government to buy back.

          This would send a clear message about who is committed to keep shares in the public hands and is indeed putting your money where your mouth is.

          2. At the same time it’s clear many people cannot afford to but their shares who are also opposed. I’m also happy to make a recorded charitable donation towards creating as part of that trust a fund to help others but their shares and also put them into the trust I.e. give an interest free loan on the condition the shares are sold for purchase value to the trust.

          3. Wouldn’t it then be good if any dividends from the power companies paid into the trust from the shares were used to help poor people buy the shares for the next power company as well as charitable contributions.

          If a future government doesn’t buy them back then the trust could be dissolved and people’s shares or donations returned.

          This seems quite feasible. It would be helpful if more parties would actually commit to buying them back.

      • Fortran 1.1.3

        I would expect that anybody with a KiwiSaver account will have some in their portfolio.
        Have sounded out a couple of biggies and they will go for as many as they can get, as they consider that it is a good long term investment for their clients.

    • Macro 1.2

      Totally agree!

      An Excellent Suggestion.

      L – get in behind!! These things need to be thought through and slagging it off isn’t helpful in the least.

      There are some who are prepared to put their money where their mouth is. Maybe not as many as those rubbing their hands gleefully anticipating a nice little earner curtesy of Uncle John, but sufficient to make a point.

  2. Tom Gould 2

    This is all very interesting, but Key and his cronies and apologists in the media seem to have convinced the public that the sales will reduce debt, which is a very simple concept for people to get their heads around.

  3. BLiP 3


    Key’s fall back position is that since the KiwiSaver fund will be buying shares and since so many Kiwis are in KiwiSaver then they can be counted as shareholders. Makes sense to him.

    • Dv 3.1

      How will the Kiwisaver funds be counted in regard to the 10% cap.
      Will each provider/fund be separate?

      If they are then Kiwisaver could easily buy all of the 49%-(isn’t that the Peters solution)

      • BLiP 3.1.1


        Irrelevant. According to financial genius and waiting-for-his-knighthood John Key, even if KiwiSaver buys just $1000 worth of shares, all the members are – hey presto – shareholders. Another National Ltd™ promise delivered as per the usual semantic hopskotch.

        As for the 10% cap, meh, nothing that can’t be got-around via a single company owning how ever many concealed shelf-companies required to obtain the desired holding. Goldman Sachs will have custom devised legal niceties already on the desks of their favoured customers.

    • Lanthanide 3.2

      Funny how he’s relying on a policy set up by Labour, that they loudly scoffed at at the time, and wouldn’t consider back in 1996 when Winston had the referendum on it, as their special Spin Card.

    • Vicky32 3.3

      Makes sense to him.

      I’m sure the Easter Bunny makes sense to him… 😀

  4. Ouch.

    Almost makes you feel sorry for Key …

    This shows one of National’s major techniques and one of its major weaknesses.  

    Grab a study, any study will do as long as it backs up your right wing dogma.

    Shout it to the hills.  With the utter confidence that only a born to rule tory can manage praise its conclusions incessantly.

    And hope no one completely and utterly undermines it …

  5. Akldnut 5

    David Shearer: Given his statement “yes, we will lose the dividend flow, but the dividend flow is pretty equal to that borrowing cost …”, has he read the Treasury advice that shows that New Zealand will be worse off by selling assets by about $100 million in lost dividend flow, and does he think that is insignificant?

    Rt Hon JOHN KEY: Yes.

    That $100 million would be a could be funds toward a Convention Centre, a new rail link, tax cuts for the 7 percent with zero or negative net wealth, or the 7 percent who are unemployed under his Government.

    Hell it would even look good in my back pocket.

    • Nick 5.1

      $100 million has to be insignificant in Key’s eyes otherwise they need to justify $100+ million on brokerage fees, $100 million on advertising / PR campaign etc.,

      Of course a fraction of this on Community Education or TVNZ7 or any number of relatively cheap, socially beneficial programmes is unaffordable, but once you get to the $100 million mark its ‘insignificant’.

      The KiwiSaver argument is a distraction. Key keeps going on about how people don’t understand the mixed ownership model and that’s why they are against it. Part of the reason they don’t understand is because an known amount of money ($5 – $7 billion but could be less) has been touted to do about $70billion worth of work from improving the companies themselves, to investing in other assets, to investing in infrastructure to paying down debt.

      Paying down debt seems to be the only one they have admitted won’t be happening, the money will avoid additional debt apparently. If the dividend flow is equal to the borrowing cost what happens when you’ve paid off your debt? No more borrowing cost AND the higher dividend flow. I think treasury’s advice said we are worse off as soon as 2016.

      All this passed with the support of an MP who was previously ‘dishonest’ or at least forgetful and another MP who was deliberately ambiguous (I don’t care how many links you put up, when they all start with ‘In general we are opposed to asset sales but…’ what do you think people hear?)

      Makes me so mad.

      • BLiP 5.1.1


        People don’t understand the “Mixed Ownership Model” because there is no such thing. Its a PR-manufactured term for something they understand very well: PRIVATISATION. Reminds me of when the Sunday Herald launched – editor at the time Sue Chetwin and INL flunky Mike Robson fronted the launch and just couldn’t bring themselves to say “tabloid”.

    • felix 5.2

      “Rt Hon JOHN KEY: Yes.”

      The question has two parts. The “yes” only has to be an answer to one part of the question according to the rules of the house.

      That was just Key being a smartarse and saying yes he’s read it which exempts him from answering what he thought about it.

      As someone here pointed out the other day, Labour and the Greens really need to tighten up their questions. They’ve had 4 years of Lockwood now, they know how he works. If the questions are tight and unambiguous the speaker will ensure that the minister answers it properly. If not, you’re on your own.

      • mickysavage 5.2.1

        Agreed Felix.  

        They keep asking double barreled questions.  They should ask single questions so there is no wriggle room and the Nats have to answer.  It may mean that supplementary questions do not go as far but they will be more effective.  

        There is nothing better than a simple question to make the questionee squirm.

        • Carol

          But usually the sting is in the supplementaries.

          • felix

            True Carol, but all of this applies equally to primary AND supplementary questions. The sting in a two-headed supplementary is just as easily avoided.

        • gobsmacked

          They’ve had 4 years of Lockwood now, they know how he works.

          They’ve also had about 4 years of being told how to do this, not least on the Standard, Red Alert, etc. Repeatedly.

          The advice has been largely ignored, because we’re just dumb voters and the MPs know better. And who can argue with 28%?

          The “Smellie” riposte that Eddie quotes in the post was very good. But Key has used the same Contact Energy quotes, by the same writer, on many occasions in the House. And he got away with it each time.

          Instant rebuttal has taken almost a year.

        • felix

          Beautifully illustrated in the house just now: Mr Cosgrove, through asking a specific straight unambiguous question, forced Mr Joyce to admit something he very much didn’t want to admit.

          (The admission btw was that Kiwirail is on the auctioneers block)

          • Carol

            I was distracted when he finally answered the question. Was that specifically what he said?

            • felix

              There was a fair bit of waffle around it but the crucial bit was that he said no, he will not say that Kiwirail will not be sold.

              • Carol

                *sigh*. He was clearly trying to avoid giving a direct answer. And this press release from Brendan Horan, NZ First:


                New Zealand First is warning that KiwiRail is going to cut about 300 jobs over the next two years.

                Transport spokesperson Brendan Horan says about 200 job losses are expected in the next year alone, with a further 100 jobs to go in the following 12 months.

                “Nearly 14 per cent of KiwiRail employees are facing unemployment under KiwiRail’s proposal which rules out any possibility of them being replaced by contract workers.”

                Mr Horan says it’s a callous move by KiwiRail to trim the wage bill by about $14 million to make it even more profitable to sell to private investors.

                “It is further proof that the Government’s policies are based on gutting profitable state-owned companies at the expense of its workers.

                • Vicky32

                  “It is further proof that the Government’s policies are based on gutting profitable state-owned companies at the expense of its workers.

                  That’s both saddening and sickening!

      • Carol 5.2.2

        I have wondered about this. That the opposition keep using two part questions makes me think there is a strategy to it. Could it be that supplementaries have be based on the primary, and asking a two-part question widens the scope for supplementaries?

        • felix

          That’s probably the tactic, but it’s a false economy if it results in the question being wasted.

          • Akldnut

            Is there a limit of supplimentry questions that can be asked of a primary question or does it work on time constraints – or both?

            • Carol

              There are limits, but I don’t think it’s per question – must be per day or a time period. Sometimes the speaker comments that a party has used up all there supplementaries, or that another party has gifted a party with one of their supplementaries.

            • felix

              Yes, Carol is right – it’s per day (or rather, per question time). Each party is allocated a number of supplementaries according to how many seats they hold.

              Not sure exactly what the formula is but the bigger your party, the more questions you get.

  6. Carol 6

    But, in relation to Key’s spin, have people been keeping track of the developments with Key’s liar “tell”?… his subsequent attempts to disguise it by overusing it when telling the truth, and Labour MPs use of it in the house to annoy Key: it’s his Pfiss. And how often has he used it when talking about asset sales?


    Pfiss … Key’s poker face revealed
    By Claire Trevett
    9:30 AM Thursday Jun 28, 2012

    In Prime Minister John Key’s case, that telling tic is a sharp intake of breath at the end of the sentence – a tight “pfiss”.
    Key’s “pfiss” originally only came out when he was saying something he did not necessarily mean – such as whether he believed, deep down, that it made economic sense for the retirement age to rise. In that context, it could be argued that when Key said “no, pfiss” he meant “yes”.
    So Key has since sought to cover his tic’s tracks by using it in all manner of situations.

    It now comes out when he is getting irritated by a line of questioning and repeating himself. There is a triumphant “pfiss” when he thinks he has slain Winston Peters, as in Parliament this week when the pair performed their sequel to the riveting saga of how many elderly migrants were freeloading on NZ Super.

    There is also the satisfied “pfiss” which comes out when he thinks he’s made a joke. In that context, the noise appears to serve the joint function of indicating his own pride in being such a wit and a verbal order to his own backbenchers to laugh, somewhat akin to a standup comedian pulling his ear for the hired laughers strategically placed in a difficult audience.
    So Labour MPs have fallen upon this pfiss with some glee and generously started to save him the trouble of doing it in Parliament by doing it themselves – pfissing away in noisy unison whenever Key stops talking, although regrettably Hansard is yet to come up with an accepted spelling for it.

    It comes out when he’s not quite sure whether even he is convinced by his own spin – most recently setting out the list of 14 targets in 10 areas his Government wanted the public service to achieve – ranging from getting 20,000 people off long-term welfare to reducing cases of rheumatic fever.

    • mac1 6.1

      “So Labour MPs have fallen upon this pfiss with some glee……pfissing away in noisy unison whenever Key stops talking…”

      So, Labour is taking the pfiss out of John Key?

      Someone had to say it.

    • fender 6.2

      So thats what it’s all about,
      I had been thinking Key was trying to suck all the oxygen out of the room in order to render everyone unconscious to avoid further questioning.

      Bloody annoying habit whatever the reason, but at least it shows he has no cavities (unlike many struggling NZ’rs).

  7. DH 7

    The Govt is really going to have to do a snow job on the public to make these floats work. Historically the share price of a newly floated SOE went up considerably post float because there were more wannabe buyers than there were shares. Contact was the only exception there & that because Edison paid way above market value for their controlling share. Many would-be buyers will be expecting a quick capital gain from these floats, they might not get it.

    This time around the share price of Mighty River may not go up in the short/medium term, indeed it could fall. Everyone knows there’s another two power companies up for grabs and I expect many people who missed out on the first float to wait for the next one rather than push up the price of MR shares post float. And if MR shares don’t go up that could have a cascade effect on the demand for the next lot of shares.

    Putting three identical businesses on the NZX one after the other in such a short space of time is pretty stupid IMO, it’s a high risk game that could backfire badly. It’s like telling bidders at an auction that you have more lots the same coming up later….

  8. Dv 8

    >The Govt is really going to have to do a snow job on the public to make these floats work.

    But they have to publish a prospectus that is accurate by law.
    They can’t spin a prospectus and stay within the law.

    • Georgecom 8.1

      Does that only apply to financial prospectus?

      The government spun and snow jobbed their election prospectus, and are not in prison.

      • Dv 8.1.1

        Yes I did mean the financial prospectus.

        But polis and others will have to careful as they are not licensed to give financial advice.

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