Ministry stone-walling on SkyCity - Labour

CATHERINE HARRIS
Last updated 05:00 06/02/2013

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A Parliamentary select committee has expressed disquiet over a lack of information from the former Ministry of Economic Development (MBIE), particularly regarding its dealings with SkyCity on the planned national convention centre.

After conducting its annual review of the MED, the commerce select committee chastised the former ministry - now part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment - for failing to fully answer many of its questions.

At one point the committee was forced to remind the ministry it expected "full and frank responses by departments to its questions," and called officials back for an unusual second hearing .

Labour party committee members, who are in the minority on the committee, made a separate statement that there seemed to be an "unfortunate pattern of denial of legitimate information" within the ministry.

But a spokesman for MBIE Minister Steven Joyce said it was clear Labour members of the committee weren't that interested in the answers that the former MED officials gave and were "more interested in trying to play politics with public servants".

Not all information asked for could be provided to the committee because much of the Ministry's work is confidential and commercially sensitive, the spokesman said.

Labour MP David Cunliffe said he was amazed when officials told the committee it would have to use the Official Information Act in response to a question about the government's negotiations with Sky City over a national convention centre.

"You can't tell Parliament to use the Official Information Act," he said.

The tender process for the convention centre is on hold pending the release of a long-awaited report from the Auditor-General into the processes followed.

Asked by the committee for dates, job titles of the officials concerned and purposes and outcomes of meetings it had held with SkyCity, the ministry said only that 23 meetings had been held between June 2011 and July 2012 with 33 exchanges of correspondence.

Although the MED did not say what its meetings with SkyCity were about, Cunliffe said the public could draw an impression "that there was a very intensive process going on".

"What is interesting is the data wasn't provided in the first instance."

A spokesman for Joyce said the original written question from the committee was very broad asking for all dates on which any Ministry employee met or corresponded with any SkyCity employee or its associated companies. That could range from contact with Electrical/Weights and Measures Inspectors to the Companies Office, the spokesman said. After the committee clarified what information it wanted, the Ministry supplied details of meeting and correspondence dates but information about who attended and what was discussed at those meetings were withheld to protect the individuals' privacy and the confidential nature of the commercial negotiation, he said.

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The ministry also faced questions in relation to the V8 Supercars event which is returning to Pukekohe from Hamilton in April. The Pukekohe raceway is having a $6.6 million upgrade for the event.

When V8 organisers sought funding from the Major Events Development Fund, the ministry admitted it did due diligence on only one venue, the organisers' preferred option at Pukekohe.

Initially MED told the committee there was "no criteria for venue selection and no departmental guidelines for multiple venue options". But through an Official Information request, it emerged the ministry had told V8 organisers it was policy to check out at least two venues. The onus was on the event organiser to do that, not the Ministry, it said.

Financially, the MED ended the 2012 financial year in deficit by $9.9m, up from $9.23m the year before, as revenue from fee-paying services dropped off.

The select committee said it would bear in mind the Ministry's merger obligations when it viewed this year's finances

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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