The Week in Politics: Scrutiny Week takes off while PM’s plane gets grounded

Analysis MPs grill ministers during Parliament’s first scrutiny week and there’s a serious warning from Winston Peters: New Zealand is “utterly unprepared”. The Air Force 757 could be replaced sooner than expected after the latest breakdown and Christopher Luxon wheels and deals in Japan while back home he’s described as a “loose-lipped apprentice PM” for something he said before he left.

There was a new deal in Parliament this week with sitting days taken up by select committee meetings where MPs questioned ministers about the budget.

It is called Scrutiny Week, intended to give the committees more time and a sharper focus on the budget and the funding allocations in it.

In the past, the hearings have been held but tend to get mixed up in the crowded committee schedules. This week was a much improved system and MPs made the most of it.

“Despite appearances, Parliament is the boss but seldom gets to show its dominance and properly inquiry into what its subordinate governments are up to,” said Phil Smith, editor of The House, in an article published by RNZ.

“The best means for drilling deeper into government’s plans, actions and spending is in public select committee inquiries.”

As expected, Nicola Willis was the star attraction because it was her budget and she faced a wide range of questions from opposition MPs, while other ministers had to answer for their own portfolio funding allocations.

“Finance Minister Nicola Willis has revealed new details about the timeline for cancer drug funding and faced a barrage of questions over climate under questioning from MPs,” RNZ reported.

Shane Reti got the treatment as well, read about his ordeal in another RNZ report headed ‘Health Minister Shane Reti defends Budget backtrack over cancer drugs’.

Stuff picked out highlights and lowlights from a total 134 hours of questioning.

Its highlight was scrutiny of the government’s broken promise on cancer drugs and the lowlight was a patsy question from National MP Tom Rutherford, who asked Willis to list the government’s nine public service targets.

They were announced by Prime Minister Christopher Luxon with much fanfare in April.

“If his own party needs help remembering them – he’s got a serious problem,” Stuff said.

Newsroom reported ‘ACT’s top three front as spending scrutiny heats up at Parliament’.

Under questioning were party leader David Seymour and the chief executive of his new Ministry for Regulation, Grainne Moss, Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety Brooke van Velden and Nicole McGee, fronting on her portfolios of courts and associate justice.

Paul Goldsmith was tackled on his new responsibility for broadcasting, and Stuff reported he rejected assertions the government was taking a “hands off” approach to the financial challenges facing the media.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters was one of the last to front, and had some high impact responses.

The Herald headlined its report ‘Foreign Minister Winston Peters delivers serious warning as Scrutiny Week concludes’.

He was asked if he received comments from other foreign ministers about New Zealand’s level of defence spending.

“Yes I do,” he replied. “I get in first, saying we’ve got to lift our game big time.

“New Zealand is a highly respected country in many ways but of late, you know, we’re going through the pre-Second World War experience: utterly unprepared, way out of time, disastrous.”

Breaking down the Air Force plane problems

The broken down NZDF plane

It was a good week for Parliament, with MPs getting into their work of holding ministers to account for the public money they are spending.

Not so good was the start of Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s trip to Japan.

The Air Force Boeing 757 taking the prime minister, a business delegation and the media broke down at its first stop in Papua New Guinea.

Luxon caught a commercial flight to Tokyo and the plane limped to Brisbane for repairs carrying the rest of its passengers. From there, a diverted Air New Zealand plane took them to Japan where the 757 eventually caught up.

With a bunch of journalists on board, this was widely reported and it was just the latest in a series of highly publicised and embarrassing failures.

The Herald ran a front page headline: ‘People will make fun of this’.

The report quoted University of Waikato international law professor Al Gillespie, who said the incident risked denting the respect New Zealand received on the diplomatic stage.

“It’s a reputational thing. Diplomacy is about the presentation of gravitas whereby you show that you deserve respect and you arrive with seriousness and purpose,” he said.

“A degree of authority is everything in diplomacy, from the clothes you wear to the way you hold yourselves and your etiquette. It’s all centuries old – making sure other countries respect you and that they can see you’re someone to do business with.”

With all that considered, the plane breaking down did not look that great, Gillespie said.

“People will make fun of something like this. It doesn’t help to convince other countries that you’re serious, respectable and reliable.”

The age of the Air Force’s two 757s and the cost of replacing them has been discussed for years and the problem has been kicked down the road.

The business class seats on the malfunctioning NZDF place

Now there seems to be a feeling that enough is enough and something has to be done.

“There appears to be bipartisan support for replacing the Defence Force’s Boeing 757s after the prime minister said it can’t be put off much longer,” RNZ reported.

“Defence Minister Judith Collins has said the plight of the Defence Force planes is more likely to be resolved now than it has over the past few years.”

The report said it was a change of tune for Luxon, who had previously said it was not the time for such a big ticket investment.

Labour leader Chris Hipkins told Morning Report he backed replacing the planes and as prime minister had asked his defence minister to look into it.

“It needs to happen, we should just get on with it and make it happen,” he said.

Hipkins made the point that the 757s were not there just to carry politicians around, and that was further explained by Chief of Defence Air Marshall Tony Davies at a select committee hearing which was part of Scrutiny Week.

“Just to highlight how busy it is, in the last three months it’s done 96 flights, and during those 96, it had some minor technical issues but it only had one that involved altering its mission,” he said.

It blew a fuse while being refuelled in PNG. The fuse was replaced but it blew again. A new part was needed but the plane wasn’t carrying the item.

The broken down NZDF plane

Richard Harman, writing on his Politik website, said Davies told the select committee there were now doubts whether the two 757s could be kept flying until 2028 as had been hoped.

“In the ratio of time they spend on the maintenance and the costs of actually maintaining them, we are getting to the point where we’re saying ‘how much longer can we keep going with this?'” Davies said.

Stuff’s Tova O’Brien revealed former defence minister Andrew Little had wanted to put an end to it.

“In August last year, as defence minister, Little wrote to the then finance minister (Grant Robertson) proposing early replacement of the limping Defence Force Boeing 757s,” she said.

“He said the replacement of the two planes could be transacted ‘in months not years’ given so many relatively new planes have been parked during the pandemic.”

O’Brien said the 30-year-old Boeings already had 10 years in commercial service before the government bought them in 2003 and Defence Minister Judith Collins had said they were “really old”.

But she didn’t seem to have an appetite for considering early replacement, O’Brien said, and quoted Collins: “We’ve looked at the cost of substitutes and it was so horrendously expensive this year that it didn’t go anywhere because the cost was just outrageous”.

A pre-Covid estimate put the price of replacing the planes at between $360 million and $600m, O’Brien’s report said.

More Japan trip woes

Christopher Luxon at Costco Tokyo

When the trip got started, with all its business delegation members on the ground, the real business of meetings, greetings and signing deals began.

The prime minister’s objectives, RNZ reported, were to boost existing business, promote international investment and develop his relationship with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida.

Luxon witnessed Rocket Lab signing up with Japanese satellite company Synspective for 10 launches off the Māhia Peninsula.

The prime minister and Kishida struck an intel-sharing deal which would see the two countries sharing more intelligence.

The Information Security Agreement enables them to share a wider range of top-secret information with each other and was the centrepiece of the meeting between the two prime ministers, the Herald reported.

There was an abundance of photo ops and Luxon made a whirlwind tour around Tokyo described in RNZ’s report ‘Christopher Luxon in Tokyo: Rocket deals, sushi and tiny dogs’.

Christopher Luxon in Japan

It should have been a good news trip all the way but Luxon had tripped himself up with something he said before he left.

Departure was Sunday, two days earlier he told Newstalk ZB the business leaders travelling with him were high calibre.

He then compared them with business delegates taken overseas by Labour, describing them as “c-list and tag-alongs”.

“That’s why I want the A list there. I want businesses that can do business in Japan, have interests in Japan, and Japan is a key part of their business strategy going forward… not just tag-alongs,” he said.

Luxon didn’t have his brain in gear when he ran that line.

The travelling media latched onto it and Luxon had to explain himself.

He initially said his comments had been taken out of context but later admitted he “could have expressed it in a better way”.

Labour naturally jumped onto it as well.

Hipkins defended the group he took to China when he was prime minister, which included chief executives or company chairs of companies such as Air New Zealand, Fonterra and Zespri.

“Christopher Luxon only seems to know how to talk himself up by talking other people down and I think that’s becoming a problem for New Zealand,” Hipkins said.

And one of the so-called c-listers had something to say as well.

Tyrone McAuley from Wellington game studio Pik Pok was on Hipkins’ China delegation and told Checkpoint the trip he went on was very valuable.

“We’re on the trip and we’re talking to all the other people on the trip, and I don’t think anyone is looking at each other in terms of ‘are you a, b or c’,” he said.

“I know that trip had made a meaningful difference to our ability to grow and contribute back to the New Zealand economy.”

Veteran press gallery journalist Barry Soper, who has been on a few prime ministerial business trips, said Luxon’s would be remembered for the plane breakdown and the prime minister’s c-listers comment.

“The prime minister’s trade mission to Japan’s been pretty successful but who would have

noticed?” he said in an article published by the Herald.

“The issue here is should Luxon have said what he did say about earlier missions? The answer is emphatically no, to do so is to insult the many legitimate businesses who have travelled,” Soper said.

“He now says he could have expressed it in a better way, which is something of an understatement.

“Luxon came across as a loose-lipped apprentice prime minister which he effectively is.”

The last word this week goes to Ayesha Verrall, Labour’s health spokesperson, reacting to Health Minister Shane Reti’s explanations for the cancer drug broken promise: “He’s prioritising saving his skin politically over doing what’s right for patients and getting modern medicines”.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament’s press gallery, 22 years as NZPA’s political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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