Ben Thomas has a word about the darkness that is Murray McCully:
Murray McCully has been described as a political Houdini. And if this week’s Auditor-General report on his Saudi sheep deal is another miraculous getaway for the foreign minister, it also confirms that like the famed escape artist’s contortions it was only necessary because he first put himself in harm’s way.
It seems inevitable that while his critics and political foes have been denied the spectacle of seeing him torn limb from limb in a pirahna tank, this will be McCully’s last great escape.
He is able to say he has been cleared of any suspicion of corrupt practices under the Crimes Act, or of making a “facilitation payment,” when he used $11.5 million in taxpayer money to buy a private businessman a doomed sheep station in the middle eastern desert in the hope of “unlocking” a free trade agreement with Saudi Arabia.
This, however, is the window dressing of a damning report, that shows strong concerns about the transparency, process and accountability of the deal. The Auditor-General gives short shrift to the idea that the “agrihub” had any purpose other than to settle the grievance of Saudi Arabian investor Sheik Hmood Al Ali Al Khalaf, whose plans for live sheep exports from New Zealand had been frustrated by the intransigence of the government and were seen as blocking an FTA. She makes clear that the so-called contract for services was a “guise” – a concealment of the true nature of the deal.
The central allegation against McCully, that he misled Cabinet over the existence of a $30 million legal threat to the New Zealand government in going ahead with the deal, has not been debunked.
The report outlines just precisely how McCully misled cabinet…mostly by omission. But lying by omission is still lying.
On the contrary, the Auditor-General says it was not clear on what basis the amounts paid to Hmood’s company were arrived at. She notes a number of times that Hmood had no announced plans to sue New Zealand, and suggests a figure of $24 million in “compensation” (the report’s inverted commas, not mine) was raised only after McCully offered some kind of settlement. The Auditor-General can only conclude there was a grievance, not a liability or even a claim. Contrary to McCully’s statements to the prime minister and Parliament, the Auditor-General makes clear in the lengthy section 2 of the report that grievance was caused not by the previous Labour government but by the current regime.
The report also confirms that the foreign minister sought no legal advice on the strength of the hypothetical claim, from Crown Law or even Mfat’s lawyers, and that the cabinet paper was written without departmental input, entirely in his office.
(Compare this with the Auditor-General’s report itself – its long gestation period of over a year includes consultation for natural justice, which is longhand for scrutiny by lawyers for the affected parties.)
The Auditor-General did not and could not look at the substance of the deal. She had to take McCully’s word that building a New Zealand-standard farm for a private businessman and flying pregnant sheep over to die in the desert is a legitimate diplomatic tool for pursuing a free trade agreement.
If that’s accepted – and the report had no choice but to accept it – then using diplomatic money was okay, and McCully received another tick.
On whether value for money was obtained, the report demonstrates there has been nothing to show for the convoluted deal so far, as an FTA remains unsigned.
If the parts in bold do not alarm you as a taxpayer, then I might suggest that you may well be a sycophant who sees nothing wrong in a national minister doing dodgy stuff on the basis that Labour may or may not do worse.
A number of John Key’s senior ministers pride themselves as deal-makers. Key and Steven Joyce see themselves as much entrepreneurs as statesmen, and are willing to cut corners on process to get an outcome. It’s an approach with mixed results. Successful negotiations to secure the Hobbit and Avatar movies sit alongside failures such as the Auckland convention centre, where the government was criticised by the Auditor-General after being outfoxed by Sky City.
The agrihub debacle can be seen as the black – or perhaps dead – sheep of this family. In each of those other cases, the people of New Zealand got something in return: movies, buildings, jobs. What distinguishes McCully’s enterprise is the lack of connection between his actions and any obvious goal beyond the striking of the deal itself.
For this reason, it will probably signal his curtain call. Other ministers and MPs may tire of the double standard afforded to the “prince of darkness” if they have not already. Similar mis-steps would see them sacked by the prime minister, not publicly defended by him, and they know it. McCully said earlier in the year that he will not contest his East Coast Bays seat in 2017, and anointment is under way for a successor who will help National’s need for rejuvenation and greater diversity.
Other ministers have been sacked for much less. Phil Heatley was done in for a bottle of wine. Maurice Williamson for a phone call and Judith Collins for an email she never sent nor received. What is so special about Murray McCully.
The dark prince has completed eight years as foreign minister, and no longer has any appetite for domestic politics, or for accountability to the media, Parliament or even his own colleagues. The Auditor-General’s report makes clear that there must now be rigorous reporting from Mfat and NZTE to assess the success or otherwise of his strange little desert adventure, for which he will be asked to account.
Murray McCully came in at the same time as Maurice Williamson who has announced his retirement. It is high time Murray McCully was put out to pasture.
Maybe he could take up sheep farming in the sand dunes of Saudi Arabia.